Friday, August 27, 2010

Alice in Wonderland: the Gov's Hiring Process (Special Union Edition)

I knew California's public sector unions had major influence, but I didn't realize just how much until recently.   I wrote this post after I had an interview with the courthouse for a courtroom clerk job--not a law clerk, but a courtroom clerk--which is akin to a court's office manager.

The courtroom clerk job requires scheduling dates, taking phone calls from the public, marking some forms, filing documents, and running interference for the judge. Also, if there is a jury trial, the courtroom clerk marks the exhibits, swears in witnesses, handles the lawyers' requests, and reads the verdict. It's not known as an overly challenging job, but it is honest work, and it comes with the usual California government employee gold-plated benefits, i.e., dental insurance, medical, pension, union protection. Also, the salary for the clerk position--which requires three years of admin work in a law firm or courthouse and no college degree--pays about as much as a non-profit attorney position in the Bay Area. So I applied, thinking if I wanted to start a family someday, the benefits would come in handy. (And God knows dental work for growing children isn't cheap.) Plus, why not see the glory that is the Santa Clara County Superior Court hiring system?

The first step was a test, but the test's instructions indicated that I would be disqualified if I discussed the content of the exam. Therefore, I am not going to discuss the questions. Instead, I am going to tell you about completely unrelated tests that I remember taking in elementary school and elsewhere. To the extent you, my dear reader, somehow associate anything about my elementary school or other academic tests with the Santa Clara County Superior Court's courtroom clerk test, you are speculating and are going down a path I do not recommend.

In any case, one of my elementary school tests, as I remember, had questions like, "64 divided by 8." Oh, and I could not use a calculator in elementary school. Also, it wasn't multiple choice. But that was back in elementary school. Some questions were slightly harder--in elementary school--such as, "120,000 + 85,405 + 7,443." Again, back in the day, they didn't let us bring calculators to the test.

I also remember taking grammar tests in elementary school. I remember questions like, "Identify the problem with the following sentence: 'Each of the idiots who crafted this exam are to be fired.'" (Did you catch it? "Each" is singular, so "are" should be replaced with "is.") Other questions related to the difference between "affect" and "effect" or involved other common mistakes. Now, can you imagine if 40% of a test contained these kinds of questions? Well, back in elementary school, I wouldn't mind one bit.

Going to another unrelated topic, as an adult, sometimes I'd apply for a job and would have to take a personality test. I loved those questions, especially when the corporation would ask me something like, "In your capacity as a police officer, how should you treat members of the public?" a) punch them in the face every chance you get; b) if asked a question, act self-important and flash the badge two inches from the person's face; c) make sure you let unsupervised children play with your loaded gun whenever they ask; or d) remember that your job is to serve the public. I had a good time taking those tests, but can you imagine if those kinds of questions constituted 20% of an employment test?

I also remember taking some tests that were insanely hard, to the point where the questions had no relation to the job itself. For example, I had a very difficult biology class at UC Davis with a new professor. So many people did poorly on his final exam, if you scored something like 35/100, you got an "A-." I've never understood why anyone would put arcane questions on a multiple choice exam. They don't seem to measure anything except luck.

Can you imagine a test that asked you questions like, "President Calvin Coolidge was President Number a) 28; b) 29; or c) 30"? I mean, let's assume you want to hire a secretary or office manager for a history professor. How would someone knowing this obscure fact have any relevance to the job? Wouldn't most people just guess and take their 33.3% chances? In any case, I am good with obscure as well as general questions, so I usually do well on written tests. In fact, if I had a test with 50 questions, I'd probably get 46 or 47 out of 50 most of the time.

So I passed the court's initial exam. Regardless of an exam's difficulty level, if it's the only objective part of the hiring process, it makes sense to use the results to narrow the field considerably. (I would also hope the questions would get harder at some point if too many people were receiving high scores.) Otherwise, the objective part of the exam serves only to eliminate complete morons, causing the hiring process to be based primarily on subjective criteria. (Can you imagine hiring a civil engineer based mainly on how he or she interviews? Drive over those California bridges carefully, okay?)

After the initial exam came an interview (at only 20 minutes an interview, I am guessing 25+ out of 60 applicants passed the written test). During my interview, I was never told that anything was confidential, so I am going to tell you all about it.

First, four people interviewed me. All very nice ladies, one African-American, two Latinas, and one Caucasian (Tracy or Tracey H.). The Caucasian was the head of Human Resources and appeared to be in charge. At least two of the other three ladies were associated with unions, such as the court reporters' union. I thought it was fascinating that union members got to decide which courtroom personnel make it to the final stages of the hiring process. Isn't California government wonderful?

The interview had four questions. The first one was your basic, "Tell us about your experience, education, etc." So I explained I'd been to law school and have always worked in law firms where, in addition to the complex legal work, I either did all the administrative work or had no dedicated admin staff. I explained that I wasn't your typical lawyer--I work directly with very diverse groups of people and usually handle cases for the (disappearing) middle class and the poor. I was concerned about being deemed overqualified, so I made sure to mention that I hoped to meet someone and start a family one day, and I wanted to be able to offer stability, consistent working hours, and benefits--none of which was possible if I kept doing 30 to 40 hours/week of admin work and another 30 to 40 hours/week of legal work. In essence, I'd be doing similar work as a courtroom clerk, but my future kids would get braces and the chance to see me before 11:00PM. So far, so good.

The next item asked what I would do if I disagreed with a judge's order. I explained that 1) as a courtroom clerk, it wasn't my place to do anything; 2) I would file the order and mail it to the parties, unless instructed otherwise; and 3) if one of the parties disagreed with the order, s/he could file a motion for reconsideration or an appeal. (I realize the court is trying to eliminate morons, but wasn't that the point of the first test?)

The third question was a little strange, but at least it was more difficult. It asked me what I would do if the phone was ringing, an attorney had come up to me and wanted to ask me a question, and I had just missed the judge's order. It didn't provide any background information, i.e., is this a CMC or law and motion? (A CMC usually requires the courtroom clerk to fill in a form with the next court date, while a law and motion matter usually has a written order prepared by a law clerk or a judge.) Also, in practice, the deputy would stop an attorney interfering in the middle of a hearing, so unless a lawyer managed to get past the deputy, the above scenario would never happen in an open session.

I was a little stumped on this one, because the question required some background information about the judge's preferences, type of hearing, etc. I answered that I would pick up the phone (if it's ringing, it might be distracting, so I thought I should pick it up), tell the caller court was in session, and s/he should leave me a voicemail or call back later, and then ask the lawyer to give the deputy a note with his or her issues (usually, the deputy passes notes between counsel and the clerk). But I still have a problem--I've missed the judge's order, and it's the clerk's job to make sure the judge's order is recorded properly.

I should have answered that I would check with the court reporter when the open session finished, but that answer didn't come to me, and not all hearings have court reporters. So I answered that I would make a note about the line number of the case and check the file later to see what happened. If the file was unhelpful, I would ask the judge about the case. It wasn't a great answer, but the question was unduly vague. In practice, the courtroom clerk would know whether he or she could interrupt the session and ask the judge a quick question, or use some other method blessed by the judge.

The last item asked me if I had any questions or comments. I said that while I wouldn't actively volunteer any information, I would be in a position to assist the court when it came to diversity because of my experience dealing with so many different groups of people. I've heard judges grossly mispronounce names and have seen other judges lack basic understanding about particular cultures, and it's embarrassing to everyone involved. (Well, at least it would be embarrassing if the judge had the empathy or knowledge to know that s/he had made a mistake, but some judges don't have the highest emotional IQs. Remember: they used to be lawyers--a generally prickly lot--and now they're lawyers with political connections and pensions--meaning they've upgraded to satisfied, powerful, and prickly.)

I also indicated I had a Westlaw contract up for renewal in two days, and asked whether I would hear back before then. This question created a tizzy. One of the interviewers smiled ominously. Tracey H. seemed put off. I'm not sure if any of them knew that Westlaw legal research contracts usually have to be renewed for one or two year periods and have much different pricing based on the contract length. Basically, unless I could figure out if I had been eliminated or hired prior to Friday, I ran the risk of spending several thousand dollars on a contract I might not need to use. In a normal interview, a company would probably say, "Well, we have other candidates to evaluate and other steps to go through, and we weren't planning on deciding the finalists so soon, but we'll try to get back to you as soon as possible." That's what a normal private employer would do, but this is the government. They don't have to give a damn.

On the way up, I asked Tracey H. about the number of positions available. She said it depended, which seemed sort of vague, especially because she'd been so chatty previously. (I am speculating, but I don't think the court knows the expected start/hire date for the job, or she would have been more specific.) She also said the next step would be to narrow the field to seven candidates, and then there would also be a hands-on test. On the way to the interview, she shook my hand, but on the way out, she did not shake my hand. My last question had definitely changed the tenor of the interview, and I don't expect to make the final cut--even though my initial test score was most likely in the top five, and no one else applying probably has a law degree. Now, is it possible my last question gave off a presumptive vibe? Absolutely, but nothing up to that point indicated that it would take four to five months (or more) to choose someone for an admin position. Besides, this is the government, not a private company--if they're spending taxpayer funds (some of which I've contributed), should they really be acting as if I'm being presumptuous by asking a simple question?

After the interview, I left the HR specialist a message thanking her for her time and telling her I appreciated her professionalism and her colleagues' professionalism. I also asked when applicants would need to be available if they made the next cut, and when the expected start date would be for the eventual hiree. I said I wanted to make sure I would be available if I managed to make the next step. Over 48 hours later, I've received no return phone call.

Oh, I almost forgot--aside from my experience with diverse groups, I am a "four-fer"--a minority based on religious, ethnic, immigration, and other status.  While the court loves talking about diversity, at the end of the day, it's still a breath of fresh Orange County, California when it comes to visible positions. There's nothing necessarily wrong with having a slice of country club O.C. in the middle of San Jose, California, but why persist with the disingenuous diversity talk? Why not be honest and tell people that the government isn't looking to hire based on merit, but other qualities, like social agreeableness? God forbid if an employee might rock the boat and offer new ways of doing things. I used to wonder why Santa Clara County Superior Court has been behind the curve on multiple issues. It adopted online tentative rulings very late (much later than Placer County), still doesn't have its orders and pleadings online like Alameda County, and recently incorporated a new judicial mediation program that Santa Cruz County had at least five years ago.

At the end of the day, if I don't get the job, I will be fine; however, I'm worried about the unemployed person who applied for the clerk job, is almost at the end of his or her benefit period, and is waiting for a decision. The court closed applications for the clerk position back in mid-June 2010. It doesn't take much time to grade a scannable multiple choice test, so why would it take four months or more to hire a clerk?

And that's when it hit me. Government jobs are not based on need, but on budgetary considerations. The unions demand money for votes, the state provides money, the money has to go somewhere, and if someone isn't hired right away, there are no real consequences to the government entity. Perhaps some work takes a little longer to complete, but the government can take its sweet time because it generally provides non-essential services.

In contrast, a private business usually won't hire someone unless it has a specific need, so when it wants someone, it usually completes the process as soon as possible. That's because a private business can terminate the employee if s/he isn't a good fit before the usual three months probationary period and hire someone else. As for job protection, in the real world, almost no one fires a person who can produce. That's why so many managers get away with murder--the company may have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in settlements, but as long as the manager produces, you don't want him leaving to your competitor.

The fact remains that most government workers do not produce or sell anything, which allows them to avoid accountability. If you don't make or sell anything, how can someone judge your performance? (Other than talking to a manager, who has no power to discipline anyone outside of complex union rules, there isn't really a way to effectively complain about a government employee's performance.) Why, then, should I be surprised if the courtroom clerk position doesn't seem to have a definite hire or start date, and the hiring process seems based more on subjective qualities than my test score, education, and experience?

While I realize every job requires people who can fit into the organization, government union jobs tend not to have clearly measurable performance metrics, so unions can prioritize subjective factors over merit. Another way to analyze the union hiring problem is to think of a world where jobs are determined primarily on subjective criteria. In that world, Mike Huckabee has just as much of a chance of getting the science job as Stephen Hawking, because if the objective test is too easy, Hawking has no real advantage over Huckabee when it comes to proving his superior scientific knowledge. In fact, Hawking is actually disadvantaged by the entire process, which weighs the subsequent interview more heavily than the earlier objective test. (By the way, I'm sure we all know that California teachers' unions love the current system, where there is no way to judge their teaching abilities. Recently, because of the teachers unions' desire to maintain the current non-accountability system, California kids lost millions of federal dollars--again. See Race to the Top article.)

You see, union jobs are like gifts, and the hiring committees view them as such. They know they won't get props for hiring the most talented person, because there isn't a way to measure performance accurately. So they focus on hiring someone agreeable, who may have few other options, and who isn't necessarily the most qualified.

Also, since public sector unions deal with OPM all the time, why should they bother getting the most bang for the buck? After all, it's not their money, and if they hire someone with new ideas or an exceptional work ethic, s/he might show up everyone else. In short, government hiring committees have no incentive to act quickly or to hire the most talented person. For taxpayers, that means if they're lucky, they get an above average employee, and the most talented applicants go elsewhere.

Why should we care? First, there's the basic fairness issue. When a recession hits, a terrible public sector worker has more job protection than an excellent private sector worker--even though the private sector pays for public employees' salaries and benefits.

Second, when a new government employee is hired, taxpayers are really paying for two people--the person and his/her pension. Stated another way, the money paid for the person's pension could be used to hire a new person thirty years down the road, so assuming finite resources, each new government employee takes a job away from someone else in the future. Even if we reform the current system, at least one generation will suffer the trillion-dollar consequences of past pension promises. See Bloomberg article, here: "The effects of altering the [pension] system are limited because most costs arise from benefits promised to workers who are already retired, and wouldn’t be affected by changes to benefits for current employees." In short, promises already made to public sector unions are so large, the government unions have irrevocably harmed at least one generation of Americans.

In an era of declining American birthrates, it's not feasible to have a system where a taxpaying adult is on the hook for someone else's pension even as s/he suffers the loss of a potential job because of the diverted tax revenue used to pay for that pension. If we continue to rely on immigration to maintain a replacement population rate (which helps support future pension obligations), we must ensure our public schools are the best in the world--and that is clearly not the case in California. (In the distant past, America was able to put new immigrants in the coal mines or other manual labor jobs and then their kids would take over their manufacturing jobs, but that system no longer exists. Today, formal education is necessary to move immigrants into upwardly-mobile status.)

Most developed societies become victims of their own success. In Europe, where unionization is heavier than in the States, we can already see major problems. Young people have difficulty finding jobs, even in skilled professions like medicine. At the same time, most native-born European citizens don't want to do menial jobs, so they import persons from poorer countries to maintain their way of life (or, if you're Japan, you stick your head in the sand and continue to oppose immigration...and build human-looking robots). While I support immigration, new immigrants tend to bring new ways of doing things, which upsets the "natural" order and creates tensions--unless a country has the resources and the flexibility to take a long-term view, i.e., to judge immigrants by whether their children assimilate.

To summarize, the natural progression of modern successful societies is as follows: industrialization; women receive equal rights; birthrates decline; unions are eventually formed; taxes are increased to support government union jobs [and tax or other benefits primarily accruing to natives]; native-born citizens refuse to do certain work, requiring the importation of poor people; the new immigrants create cultural tensions; and either society adapts and is able to welcome the new immigrants like the United States has done, or it fails to assimilate the new immigrants and begins a slow, steady decline, like Europe. One common theme in the collapse of a country is public sector unions. See Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money, page 104:

"The Weimar tax system [which led to massive inflation, making the German mark basically worthless] was feeble, not least because the new regime lacked legitimacy among higher income groups who declined to pay the taxes imposed on them. At the same time, public money was spent recklessly, particularly on generous wage settlements for public sector unions."

[Bonus: "As its economy stagnated in the early 2000s, Germany increased competitiveness by working with unions to keep wage increases below productivity growth. Greece, its economy fueled by the cheap government loans that came with eurozone membership, saw labor costs soar [as Greek unions negotiated wage and benefit increases above actual economic growth]." (National Geographic, March 2015 pp. 109)] 

Public sector unions bring with them a culture of no merit, no production, no accountability, and OPM. The larger they get, the more society is forced to rely on higher taxes and immigrants to move the country forward. California has been very lucky to receive many hard-working, smart immigrants in the past thirty years. Without recent immigrants and their children, Yahoo (YHOO), Google (GOOG), eBay (EBAY), Sun Microsystems, and Apple (Steve Jobs is biologically half-Syrian or half-Lebanese) would not exist.

I don't know whether I've been rejected for the court job. When I get the next letter, I'll probably just throw it away. I have no interest in working for an entity that places significant decisions in the hands of four people who don't seem to understand the issues facing a small business with annual contracts and who don't seem intent on moving the hiring process forward in a timely manner.

I'm happy to note, however, that there was a silver lining to the interview. It reminded me that I spend each day trying to help people resolve problems, and I am accountable to my clients every single moment. Even if my future kids have crooked teeth because Daddy doesn't have dental benefits, at least I can tell them that I did my best. Plus, if I had received the clerk position, who knows whether I would have been able to fit into the courthouse's union culture. At least as the owner of a small business, I can strive to make sure that every person who comes into my office is treated honestly, openly, and respectfully--just like I've been doing for the past six years. Now if only the courthouse could meet my standards.


Unknown said...

Ars Technica posted about this phenomenon (in a more general sense, not limited to unions) in the most recent Nobel Intent:

Maybe I'm just not particularly normal, but I like it when other people pick up the slack for me...

Noumenon said...

I dunno -- we always just accepted that the government's wheels ground slow when my brother was applying for the state department. Heck, they only give out the test once a year, so there's no chance of being hired most weeks. Then it's 6-12 months before you hear back and get your background check done... does a courtroom clerk get a background check? Maybe they expected you to know you don't just start tomorrow in that kind of job.

Matt Rafat said...

@Noumenon: you're hit the nail on the head. The government's hiring process almost seems designed to be as slow as possible. It is stunning that so many Americans just accept the fact that the government is inefficient when it comes to hiring, especially when we're in a recession.

I was surprised that a union would have *any* influence over the hiring process. I was also surprised that the objective portion of the test–for a well-paying, visible job–may have included 3rd grade math and language questions.

I used my surprise over such issues to write about my experience and general thoughts. My post wasn’t only about local unions and my interview, but how increasing participation by public sector unions affects all of us. In short, government is inefficient, but allowing unions to broaden their influence and power will make it worse–-for reasons I mentioned in the post (e.g., costing California's children billions in federal money).

-A Fed said...

I don’t intend to discount your experience with the hiring process. I’ve heard similar stories and seen a few first hand in my 20+ years of service. I would like to provide a brief counter point. For every poorly run HR department there is one that is doing their best to expedite hiring and make sure the positions are filled in a timely manner. For every slacker who does the minimum there is a go getter trying to make up the slack. For every entrenched bureaucrat resistant to change there is a change agent trying to drag his or her organization into the present. Yes, our government is often a bloated bureaucracy stifling under its own weight, but it’s made up of thousands of individuals. At least some of those individuals are still here because we want to make a difference and make things better.

By all means, share these egregious examples of bad behavior. The more they are exposed, the more likely they are to be corrected. Don’t paint with too broad a brush though, and if you do find a shining example of progress paint that picture as well. There is an old saw about ‘Your Tax Dollars at Work’ that still seems pretty popular. I try to remember that my salary and every decision I make are someone’s tax dollar and be a good custodian of that public trust. I won’t claim to be in the majority in public service, but I promise I’m not alone either.

(I couldn't find a way to send a note directly to the author, so am posting in the comments thread. Feel free to decline the comment or edit as appropriate.)