Florida's service first: Radical reform in the sunshine state

James S. Bowman, Jonathan P. West, Sally C. Gertz

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

14 Scopus citations


During the past twenty years, Florida has become a "megastate," challenging California as a trendsetter in popular culture and public policy. This status is based on population growth of nearly 25 percent in the 1990s and corresponding political clout on the national stage. Evidence that Florida is "hot" is seen in news stories capturing national attention: The Elian Gonzalez case, shark attacks, the Gianni Versace murder, court battles over Ted Williams' frozen remains, women biting dogs, hurricanes, Dale Earnhardt's death, terrorists attending flight schools, O.J. Simpson's latest troubles, and the 2000 presidential election recount. It is the home of cocaine cowboys, the Redneck Riviera, refugee rafters, massive prison populations and meager education budgets, citrus canker, the nation's senior citizens, Disney devotees, universities dedicated to sports, lenient bankruptcy laws, rock bottom indicators of public health and social well-being, Latin American-style income distribution, no state income tax, and condo commandos. It is entirely apropos that the Salvador Dali museum is located in the Sunshine State as "Floridians have come to expect the surreal," according to the New York Times (Paterniti 2002, 31). Indeed, Florida occupied center stage for 36 days during the 2000 presidential election and remained in the spotlight as two controversial contenders vied for the governorship in 2002: incumbent Jeb Bush and former Clinton cabinet officer Janet Reno. One of the issues in the race was the nature of the state employment. Bush, proud of his "Service First" civil service reform, believes that it will enhance productivity; the law, according to Reno and candidate Bill McBride (who upset her in the Democratic primary), should be repealed. For all the controversy in Florida culture and politics, the strange aspect of this debate is this: The state personnel system, consisting of 124,000 people, is one of the most productive in the country based on the number of workers compared to population. Reform is here, there, and everywhere as shown in this volume. It is, however, seldom as radical as Florida's initiative, which dismantles civil service safeguards for public workers. Deeply conservative (if not politically reactionary), the state is clearly capable of dramatic change. Some five years after neighboring Georgia eliminated job tenure for all new state employees in 1996 (West 2002; Condrey and Maranto 2001; Nigro and Kellough, this volume), Florida business and taxpayer interests aligned to redefine the state's civil service. Governor Bush signed Service First into law on May 14, 2001; it became effective July 1 of that year. Civil service reform in Florida is not a new idea as some dozen relevant studies have been done in the last several decades. Most recently, the Democratic Chiles-MacKay administration (1993- 1999), guided by the philosophy of "reinventing government," sponsored legislation to promote total quality management, create a flexible employee reward system, reduce the number of classifications, improve training and development, streamline organizational processes, and decentralize decision making.1 It did not, however, question the need for a merit-based civil service system, which appeared to be guaranteed by the state constitution. Service First posed such a challenge by abolishing merit system defenses for a large group of current employees. It is as radical in its thrust, if not its reach, as the reforms in Georgia (indeed, because it eliminated vested property rights of current employees, Florida's reforms in some ways are even more bold than Georgia's). Given the state's trendsetter status, it is important to understand why this initiative was undertaken, the nature of the changes introduced, and the prospects for the future. This analysis will emphasize the most striking aspect of the reform: The removal of civil service job protections in state government and the institution of employment at-will, a private sector philosophy that gives an employer the unquestioned right to terminate an employee "at-will" at any time without due process for any or no reason not contrary to law (Muhl 2001).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCivil Service Reform in the States
Subtitle of host publicationPersonnel Policy and Politics at the Subnational Level
PublisherState University of New York Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)9780791466278
StatePublished - Dec 1 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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