Massachusetts Civil Service Mess


John O'Leary, former chairman of the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission and a long-ago policy analyst at Reason Public Policy Institute, has written a fascinating look at how the Bay State doles out public sector jobs.

Forget about minority preferences; O'Leary exposes how "absolute preferences"–i.e. hands and legs up to connected, if undistinguished, candidates–make a mockery of civil service exams and merit-based hiring. One example among many:

In 2003, Brockton [Massachusetts] wanted to hire some police officers who could speak Portuguese. The number 6 candidate on the civil service list was a white individual who scored 75. Number eight was a minority candidate scoring 97.

Both spoke Portuguese and were Brockton residents; neither was a veteran. Why would a minority who scored 22 points higher go to the back of the hiring bus? The state was simply following the rules dictated by absolute preferences when it sent out this topsy-turvy list.

The minority candidate is not the only loser; the city of Brockton also loses. Of the 996 police candidates who passed the test, the number six candidate was outscored by 976 of them. So Brockton has someone who barely passed the exam responding to 911 calls, handling evidence in murder trials, and trying to break up gangs.

Whole thing here.


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  1. With all due respect to Mr. Gillespie, it is difficult to support the sweeping generalization that “…public sector employment … is typically seen first and foremost as constituency service.” In reality, when a local official hires “bad” public employees the political damage usually exceeds the benefit of hiring a few potential voters.

    The preference for police officers to live “in town” is based on the principle that having the officer living in town provides a benefit to the community in off duty hours. The same principle extends to allowing officers to take home duty vehicles.

    While it is easy to say a firm should hire the “best qualified” person, there is also a case to made that a firm is entitled to hire the person whose employment is “most advantageous.” One can argue that a “local” officer is not a substantive benefit, however, the preference is not arbitrary.

    I readily agree that any hiring system can be abused. I also question the merits of selecting public employees lke police officers simply on the basis of a civil service exam. An officer who scores very highly on the exam may also be a hothead with poor street judgement.

  2. One can argue that a “local” officer is not a substantive benefit, however, the preference is not arbitrary.

    Really? Because scoring in the bottom 2% on the CSE and still getting the job seems to me an arbitrary preference.

  3. Then you need to look up “arbitrary.” Bad outcomes can result from reasonable, consistently applied standards.

  4. Isn’t joe a civil servant in MA? Maybe this explains how he keeps a job…

  5. I’m a civil servant, but not on Civil Service, if that makes any sense. I can be fired at will.

  6. The blog post doesn’t explain what’s going on here. What happens is that candidates who are town residents, a veteran, or relatives of an injured police officer get bumped to the top of the list. Part of one’s background may effectively serve as a “trump card” that allows one to disregard the results of a candidate’s civil service exam.

  7. Uh, Nick, the article says absolutely nothing about “hands and legs up to connected, if undistinguished, candidates.”

    Here’s the deal, from the editorial:

    “Massachusetts hands out a slew of “absolute preferences,” which effectively trump test scores, to veterans, disabled veterans, the sons and daughters of police officers injured in the line of duty, town residents, and more.” Yup, disabled vets = knowing the Town Assessor’s brother.

    I’m not sure where I come down on these types of preferences. But I’m 100% sure where I come down on sloppy errors created by ideological blinders.

  8. “Connected” was not the best word choice on my part to summarize the preferences, which are apparently set at the state level. However, in my experience (this was in New Jersey) town residency requirements were almost always a proxy for knowing the people doling out the jobs. And while one can appreciate the impulse behind hiring the relative of a slain or injured cop, if that relative is not a particularly strong candidate, they shouldn’t get the job, especially if it’s related to public safety. A recurring problem with public sector employment is that it is typically seen first and foremost as constituency service–supplying patronage jobs that help local pols maintain power. The jobs’ actual social functions are seen as secondary at best.

  9. Anything not related to job performance seems out of place in the hiring process. As an abstract rule, why would the offspring of a killed cop make a better officer? I can see arguments for both sides, but those points are not simple and must be evaluated case by case. If one wants to allow the hirer some discretion, why trump it?

    joe: I thought you were not a resident of Olympus. Congrats on losing your own predjudices, and on your new address.

  10. Nick,

    Thanks for the clarification. They really are two separate points, even if they both apply in certain cases.

  11. What I find interesting is the short time that Mr. O’Leary was the Chair of the Civil Service Commission. If he was doing such a bang up job, why was he there for less than six months. Is it because he was unable to handle the backlog of pending cases that need to be dealt with? Firefighters, police officers etc. are spending thousands of dollars on attorneys to have their cases heard by the civil service commission and the end result is the commission sitting on cases not making decisions. Why does the commission exist at all?

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