State hiring changes focus on ethics, fairness

Thomas B. Stephens, Secretary of Kentucky Personnel Cabinet
Thomas B. Stephens, Secretary of Kentucky Personnel Cabinet

A June 12 letter to the editor complained of the impact of leadership changes resulting from the change in administration in Frankfort.

As the head of the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet, I share in the challenge that this time creates on a personal and professional level.

In 2007, I was asked to resign by the incoming Steve Beshear administration. I now find myself back in state service.

I understood then, and I understand now, that each governor is entitled to appoint those individuals who are committed to carrying out the goals and agenda for which he or she was elected.

Of the 32,000 state employees in our system, only about 800 are genuine political appointments serving at the pleasure of the governor.

Six months into the Beshear administration’s first term, there had been 286 separations and 296 appointments to state service.

This contrasts with the Gov. Matt Bevin administration’s 257 separations and 208 appointments after the first six months. Bevin has taken a thoughtful approach to personnel decisions and has made fewer moves than his predecessor.

Bevin has also recognized chronic problems within our state’s merit hiring system and charged me with fixing those problems.

With Executive Order 2015-050, issued on Dec. 22, Bevin placed responsibility for merit hiring within the Personnel Cabinet. This is not a duty I take lightly.

First, the cabinet has implemented a check on the historical practice of patronage hiring in our merit system. Previously, any exemptions to the hiring freeze for merit positions received final approval from the governor’s office. This approval came only after an individual had been selected for a position.

That practice has been eliminated.

Now, cabinet secretaries and independent agency heads must petition the Personnel Cabinet for authority to advertise jobs, meaning that the approval of the position is not contingent on the politics of the individual selected, and that the governor’s office is completely removed from the process.

Second, I have instituted a new ethics requirement at the Personnel Cabinet: No non-merit employee in management may give a recommendation or serve as a reference for any merit position.

The third change to the merit hiring process is an interviewing program.

This program will require agencies to utilize panels with multiple interviewers, encourage diversity in the hiring panels, and use behavioral interviewing techniques to ensure that the best candidates are selected.

While these reforms do not guarantee the removal of politics from civil service hiring, they go a long way toward safeguarding the process from such influences.

By the end of this year, we hope to have further simplified the process so that applicants may initially submit their names for consideration with a resume to speed up the hiring process. Candidates selected for appointment will still be required to provide additional information, but only after their initial selection.

I have the pleasure of working with excellent employees every day who work exceptionally hard and provide critical services to the citizens of Kentucky.

They deserve a thank you from all of us for continuing to do more with less, and I am honored to serve the people who serve the people.

Thomas B. Stephens is secretary of the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet.