In his 1996 State of the State Address, Governor Zell Miller of Georgia outlined his plan to revise the State Merit System, the state's central personnel agency, established more than 50 years before to create a professional workforce free of political cronyism. He argued that the results of the system had been long-term "governmental paralysis...a solution in 1943 is a problem in 1996."
Before reform, individual agencies complained that the requirement for all applications to be screened by the Merit System led to delays of up to six weeks in hiring qualified candidates, by which time many of them had accepted jobs elsewhere. Many agencies also found it extremely hard to fire negligent or incompetent employees, due to the amount of documentation and time required for the process under Merit System rules.
Other states have been reforming their civil service laws over the past few decades, but Georgia took a huge step beyond their efforts, eliminating the civil service code entirely for state employees hired after July 1, 1996. Since then, employees in the Georgia civil service have been aware that their employment is not a "for-life" entitlement, but conditional on continued performance and relevance.
The reform created a human resource management model that decentralized hiring and pay functions to the operating agencies, established an at-will employment status for new hires, and changed the role of the central Merit System from that of regulator to consultant and facilitator.
Today, the average time between job development to start date is two to three months, almost four times faster than before reform, and comparable to private sector hiring averages. Before reform, the average tenure of employees terminated for incompetence was 4.5 years, which has now been reduced to two years. As of 2000, almost half of the state's employees were classified as "at-will," or terminable without liability at any time; this percentage is rising steadily after the reform.
The reform has not been without its critics. One 1998 study by Stephen Condrey of the University of Georgia alleged that some agencies were "wholly unprepared to accept the new decentralized personnel authority," and pointed to indications of cronyism and favoritism creeping back into the hiring process.
Another significant shortcoming of the civil service reform has been the drastic expansion of agency-created jobs. In an effort to leverage individual control over job duties and compensation, agencies have created "agency-unique" titles for a wide variety of jobs common across the system, from secretaries to food service workers. With so many titles presenting the same duties on different pay grades, it has become more cumbersome to analyze workforce data and ensure equitable treatment of workers across agencies.
While many states cite strong employee unions and combative legislative branches as obstacles to reforming their own bureaucracies, Governor Miller and his supporters argue that civil service reform has led to improved efficiency in the selection and maintenance of a state workforce without additional tax dollars being spent.