Public employee unions are pressing Governor Hochul and the Legislature to undertake a massive hiring binge.

Hochul, in turn, has pledged to “rebuild” the state workforce. With few exceptions however, the recent leanness of the state payroll has revealed agencies can operate sometimes with considerably fewer people than they had three years ago. Hochul should be looking for ways to secure this as a permanent accomplishment, not squandering it with reflexive hiring.

More importantly, she should be open to the strong possibility that the state workforce needs to shrink further, because officials can’t justify the number of people being paid now.

Doing Less with Less

The number of employees in agencies under the governor’s control (essentially the state payroll excluding the judicial and legislative branches; and attorney general, comptroller, and board of elections employees) stood at 188,455 full-time equivalents as of October 2022.

That was a decline of nearly 17,000 FTEs from the same time three years earlier, before the pandemic.

The nature of that decrease is important. More than half was at just three agencies: the City University of New York (CUNY), the State University of New York (SUNY), and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). And while payrolls shrank, so did their client base, so to speak.

Enrollment at state-funded colleges and universities (excluding community colleges) declined significantly between fall 2019 and fall 2022. SUNY employment is down 4 percent, but with 8 percent fewer students. (Detailed fall 2022 data have not yet been published for CUNY, but enrollment had fallen 5 percent by fall 2021).

On the corrections side, the state’s inmate population in January stood at 31,221 housed at 44 correctional facilities, down just over one-third from 47,400 in early 2020 when the state managed 54 sites. While DOCCS employees also work with the state’s parolees, the prisons are the more manpower-intensive side of the operation.

To be sure, some of the reduced staffing levels at direct-care agencies such as the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (down 2,700 from 2019) and Office of Mental Health (down 800) has translated into greater overtime costs and more mandatory overtime. But these agencies also operate in a robust ecosystem with non-profit providers who can sometimes provide the same services at lower cost with better quality. That is to say, New York can provide many of these services without having a state employee provide them, and hiring shouldn’t be the state’s automatic response.

Lower Dues Makes Hire Pressure

The loudest voices fretting about the size of the state workforce have been the state’s public-employee unions—who are feeling a double-pinch. Not only do they have fewer workers from whom to get dues, but a larger share of employees (15 percent as of September 2022) have stopped paying dues or dues-like fees since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled the unions couldn’t force public workers to pay.

That economic reality has pushed some groups to the point of hyperbole.

The Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), the largest state employee union, last year shrank to its smallest membership in several decades. The organization, which also represents local government, school district, and private-sector workers, has seen membership fall more than 20 percent since 2009.

Testifying on the state budget, the union claimed the state workforce, over a decade, was “strangled with a strict hiring freeze that made it impossible to bring new employees into state agencies.”

The data paint a different picture. While Governors David Paterson and Andrew Cuomo tapped the brakes amid the Global Financial Crisis and the associated state budget deficits, new-employee onboarding never stopped. As the state’s financial picture improved, so did the state’s pace of hiring. While agencies under the governor’s control hired more than 5,700 people (not including SUNY and CUNY faculty) in Cuomo’s first year, they made more than 12,000 hires each year in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. Cuomo tamped down on hiring again amid the pandemic, but still made more than 9,400 hires during 2021.

Hire Smart, Not Fast

New York took a few steps earlier in the 2010s to make state operations more efficient. Information technology professionals, previously been strewn across dozens of offices and agencies, were reorganized into a single outfit with fewer managers. Some departments and boards—most notably the banking and insurance departments—were merged. The state also pulled back-office functions such as bookkeeping and human resources into a single shop at the Office of General Services. A smaller state payroll, in many respects, isn’t a problem: it was a policy goal.

Most major agencies had shrunk in the leadup to the pandemic, but some payrolls had ballooned. From fall 2010 to fall 2019, CUNY’s payroll swelled 14 percent and SUNY’s grew by 9 percent—each without anything close to commensurate enrollment growth.

Something else was happening in that same period: Aided in part by technology, worker productivity measured across the national business sector climbed 8.3 percent, essentially meaning that on average, 12 people were producing as much by 2019 as 13 people had in 2010. That meant, all things being equal, the state payroll should have shrunk simply because fewer people were needed to achieve the same agency functions.

For government, advances in video teleconferencing and digital records, among other things, have the potential to let the state achieve tremendous efficiencies in its paper-heavy, in-person process.

Technology only helps, though, when management has an incentive to implement it. As a notorious Daily News columnist captured tidily, public employee unions—and the officials they help elect—will go to great lengths to stop innovation in state government if it threatens the status quo. Digital tape recorders used in state hearings, for instance, don’t pay union dues the way stenographers do.

The heavy unionization of the state workforce means union contracts and grievance settlements control not just the pay and benefits for most state positions but also work rules that take away management’s flexibility to reorganize offices and make efficiency gains. Union contracts also sit atop the civil service system, which sets strict rules on the nature of work an employee can perform and create an obstacle to modernizing roles.

Following The Data

Which brings us to the big problem: New York’s leaders don’t have a good sense of how many employees it needs because it doesn’t appear to meaningfully measure what agencies do.

How long are people are in line to get a liquor license renewed by the State Liquor Authority, and how long have they been waiting? How many permits are pending approval by the Department of Environmental Conservation? As raised above, how many students are enrolled in each program at the City University of New York? Looking specifically at the question of agency staffing levels, how many state workers are scoring adequately on annual performance evaluations, and how often, or how rarely, are they terminated for poor performance?

State agencies—and the 213 lawmakers who are supposed to oversee them—generally can’t answer these sorts of questions because they aren’t keeping track of their performance, and they’re definitely not making a point to share their findings with the public. That leaves lawmakers, and the public, unable to judge whether headcounts or other policy changes have affected outcomes. That’s especially problematic given that state agencies have been allowing many employees to work remotely at least part-time without presenting the Legislature with evidence to show that productivity hasn’t been negatively affected.

One exception to the rule is the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which measures average wait times—and has seen them get shorter over time.

New York dabbled with performance measurements in the early 1980s but backed away from them a decade later. This report from the Citizens Budget Commission provides a good history.

What might an adequate system do? New York City’s shows where to begin. Officials routinely publish more than 450 performance measurements ranging from “sidewalks rated acceptably clean” to the FDNY’s average response time to structural fires. The City also tracks, at a higher level, whether an agency’s indicators overall are getting better or worse.

The other side of the coin will be what’s done with the data. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley helped spark a national conversation about performance measurements, in his case holding regular meetings to address the findings.

For New York, the benefit of performance measurements will depend heavily on the extent to which lawmakers and the governor follow the data. That may lead them to politically uncomfortable places, especially in cases where the state’s metrics show private contractors could perform work at lower costs or higher quality.

In the meantime, charging ahead with thousands of hires when the state can’t justify its current employment levels would be a mistake.

As the old saying goes, that which is measured tends to improve. New York state agencies, for the moment, seem wired to prove the inverse is true.

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