Fixing the culture of fixing

At the risk of summoning Rod Blagojevich in a cloud of fire, brimstone, and cheap aftershave, our blog belatedly marks the third anniversary (June 27, 2011) of the former Illinois governor being found guilty of 17 charges.

Blagojevich got his start in politics by marrying an alderman’s daughter. After four years in the statehouse, Blagojevich ran—oh, the foreshadowing!—for the U.S. House seat of congressfixer-turned-prisoner Dan Rostenkowski. Michael Patrick Flanagan, a conservative Republican, had made a two-year cameo in the seat before playing doomed matador to the local Democratic machine and losing handily to Blagojevich in 1996.

Promoted without irony as a Kennedyesque figure, Blagojevich campaigned for governor on a promise to end business as usual in the wake of the corruption tsunami that brought down previous office-holder George Ryan. That he ran against an opponent with the name of Jim Ryan (no relationship to George) only helped. Voters, untroubled by Blagojevich’s Muppet voice or erroneous impression of himself as humorous, made him the first Democrat in thirty years to plant his lawn flamingo outside the governor’s mansion.

There is much to condemn in the years that followed. The hubris of tape-recording his own corruption. His successful attempts to alienate everyone in his own party. Calling his hairbrush “the football.” Trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Extorting money intended for a children’s hospital. A  foray into reality television that allowed him to become another of the semi-sentient piles of hair that frequently win a measure of American celebrity, a celebrity that ended only after he forced a 16th minute of fame on an unwilling public.

In Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State, authors James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson make a rather novel appraisal of Blagojevich, blasting him not for his scandals—anyone can do that, as this blog shows—but for his long-overlooked record as a lousy executive:

Rod Blagojevich, governor from 2003 to 2009, nearly destroyed the state personnel system. The process limps along, dominated by unions, stripped of many of its experienced middle- and upper-rung professionals, lacking management tools to reward and sanction, and unattractive to the next generation of capable employees. This is Blagojevich’s most serious crime against Illinois. It will take a generation to restore what has been lost, according to insiders. When the authors were directors of several state agencies during the early 1980s, the state personnel system comprised three layers:

*   a top layer of political and professional employees in policymaking positions, who could be dismissed at any time;

*   a deep middle layer of employees protected by the civil service system and rewarded by a merit compensation program, and third,

*   a level of generally low-skill employees, difficult to differentiate by civil service examination, who were protected by union membership.

Today, we have a dysfunctional system in which the middle layer has basically vanished and the top layer is basically protected from dismissal at will by union protection.

State government staffing has been reduced dramatically since 2003. An early retirement program accompanied Blagojevich into office in 2003, when thousands took advantage of the program, reducing state employment rolls from 87,420 in 2002 to 75,250 in 2004. Since then overall state employment has declined further, to 64,328 in 2012, according to the Office of the Comptroller. Robert Powers was deputy general counsel for personnel for Governor George Ryan from 1999 to 2003, the years immediately preceding the governorship of Rod Blagojevich. He observes that “Blagojevich took over the Civil Service Commission, created hundreds of Rutan exempt positions (positions exempt from prohibitions on political hiring), put his own people into the jobs, then protected them by making the relatively high-level positions part of the union contract.”

Blagojevich demeaned state employees publicly and struck fear into the hearts of many upper-level state employees, who worried that they would be the next to be fired. Paranoia developed from the top ranks on down about who was going to be forced out to make room for often incompetent Blagojevich hires. As a result, many veteran, highly competent employees retired or left state employment during the early years of the Blagojevich administration.

Nowlan and Johnson have some ideas on how to bring back competent state government. In fact, Fixing Illinois is all about doing so. Former (unindicted) governor Jim Edgar praised the book as “an excellent overview.” Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III said it “should be read by all concerned Illinois citizens and especially those who seek and occupy public office.” Fixing Illinois lays out the tough choices that need to be made to reform Springfield for real, and guarantee the state’s citizens a roster of retired governors who march in parades rather than pose for mug shots.