Should local governments be hiring felons? Or, more to the point, should government technology workers undergo background checks?
San Francisco found itself locked out of its own data communications network in July after a rogue employee, Terry Childs, refused to share the password necessary to access network elements such as routers and switches. Childs had been convicted of aggravated burglary and robbery and actually served prison time in 1983, many years prior to his employment in San Francisco. A relatively routine check of convictions databases by San Francisco would have disclosed this fact.
But, should local government technology workers undergo background checks?
On first thought, you might think the answer to this is, as expressed by my teenage daughter “no duh”. Of course such background checks should be conducted. Government agencies work in a fishbowl. Freedom of information act requests and public disclosure acts and open meetings laws mean that almost everything we do is subject to public scrutiny. Scandals and mistakes and incidents like San Francisco’s are front page news and sell a lot of newspapers and “advertising by Google” on Internet sites.
Government agencies should be held to a higher standard of service and scrutiny. We spend thousands, millions and billions of dollars. ($3.6 billion at the City of Seattle next year.) These are taxpayer and ratepayer dollars, not voluntary contributions from the public. We definitely should not be employing felons.
But, as in everything else, there is always a simple answer to any given question and it is almost always wrong.
So what is a “background check”? At its basic level, this is a search of public or law enforcement databases for convictions. Are we looking for felony convictions, or misdemeanors and felonies? A misdemeanor in one state is a gross misdemeanor in another is a felony in a third.
Does the crime conviction have a nexus to the work of the employee? In other words, is a conviction for drunk driving a reason not to employ someone as a database administrator? If I was convicted for possession of an illegal substance when I was in college 20 years ago, but have a spotless record since; am I unemployable in all governments throughout the United States for the rest of my life?
Do we search for arrests, as opposed to convictions? If I am simply arrested for drug possession, but not convicted, should that “count”?
Should we do a credit check on potential employees, on the theory that they may take government property and sell it on craigslist if they have a history of bankruptcy or bad debts? If a potential employee has racked up hundreds of unpaid parking tickets in Milwaukee should they not be employable in any other government anywhere in the nation?
Furthermore, let’s presume I pass the background check, keep my nose clean for 6 months or a year or whatever the probation period is, and become a “permanent” civil service employee. But then, 5 years after starting to work, I have an altercation with my spouse and am convicted of domestic violence. Or perhaps I have multiple drunk driving convictions. Or maybe I declare personal bankruptcy due to my inability to manage my credit card debts.
Should we (government) conduct checks for criminal convictions every year? Should we constantly pull credit checks on our employees? Or, once you get “into” the civil service system, are you home free for a life of working – and, in most cases, diligently serving – government?
I just don’t know the answer to all these questions.
But I do know this: if you are a felon, you need not apply to work at the City of Seattle’s Department of Information Technology.
I won’t hire you.