March 19, 2010

Secrecy in government hiring

Retired journalism professor and life-long ranch guy Bill Kunerth of Belle Fourche has been following the secrecy surrounding the hiring of a new superintendent for Rapid City schools. He re-visits key points he made some 30 years ago in an op-ed piece for the Des Moines Register about secrecy in the hiring of government officials.

(1) If candidates are identified some will be lost. And, although almost all candidates would prefer not to be identified, it is the weak and/or insecure ones who are most likely to refuse to apply if identified. The strongest, most competent ones will be the most willing to be identified. If not given the choice of anonymity, the best, serious candidates will usually apply. If there is a state law, as there should be, requiring identification – at least of the finalists -- then they would have no choice.

(2) In almost all employee-employer relationships at this level, the employee looking for another job is committed to or will usually tell the boss he is applying elsewhere (If he doesn't he may suffer more than if he did). And all employers take for granted that their most competent employees are likely to be looking to move into better positions. Good employees usually improve their current status if is known they are looking elsewhere.

(3) Even if a candidate is not identified, the likelihood of keeping the application of a high-level employee secret from an employer is remote. As soon as the application is received, the prospective employer is on the phone or mailing letters to several references. The references may be sworn to secrecy but that's highly unlikely.

(4) Secrecy breeds rumors and unfair publication of names--whether accurate or inaccurate. Although, my guess is that the South Dakota media are less aggressive about this than the media in most states, the common pattern is for the press to be nosing about, doing its best to uncover the names of candidates and it often goes with whatever reports it gets.

(5) Secrecy allows for a "good old boy/girl" situation in which, for personal or political rather than public interests, members of the hiring body do not consider excellent candidates. For example, a city council in a city manager form of government might be reluctant to hire a highly competent, independent manager who would clean up city departments, identify incompetent employees and root out favoritism. These candidates can be ditched without the public even knowing they applied. The same may be the case for a school board, whose main interest is in hiring a superintendent of schools whom it can manage.

(6) The most important stakeholders in the search for appointmive govermental officials are those most affected by those being hired, For example--in the search for a school superitendent, it is the teachers, students and their parents. In the hiring of a city manager or a police chief, it includes their potential employees but also the entire community. These are the parties who need as much information as possible about likely candidates before they are hired so they can provide valuable input.

(7) Only the job security of prospective appointees is considered in the discussion of identifying job candidates. Equal attention should be paid to the impact on the large number of persons who work for the candidate, especially in the case of school administrators. Many sub-administrators and teachers are likely to look for new jobs if their superintendent is doing so. And, in their cases, the appointments are often made after they sign contracts.

(8) A public agency should question whether or not it is wise to hire an individual who prefers a policy of secrecy in hiring. This is likely to be indicative of his entire philosophy about the city, county or school governance.

(10) Of course, the hiring agencies prefer confidentiality. They want as smooth a process as possible (no outside involvement) and they want as much control of the hiring process (candidates) as possible.

Bill Kunerth is a retired Professor of Journalism at Iowa State University in Ames. He lives in Belle Fourche.

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