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Originally published July 12, 2012 at 8:29 PM | Page modified July 13, 2012 at 7:50 AM

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Truth Needle: Too many middle managers in government? Inslee distorts reality

Gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee claims that middle-management positions in state government have increased 1,000 percent since 1993. But that assertion is based on misleading figures.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Truth Needle rankings

We base our Truth Needle rankings on those used by Politifact.com, a fact-checking project by the Tampa Bay Times.

True: The statement is true and doesn't require any additional explanation.

Mostly true: The statement is true but requires explanation or additional information.

Half true: The statement is partially true but omits key details or takes things out of context.

Mostly false: The statement has an element of truth but ignores facts that would lead to a different impression.

False: The statement is false.

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The claim: Jay Inslee, the Democratic candidate for governor, has proposed shrinking state government by cutting the number of employees working in middle management. In a recent interview with The Seattle Times editorial board, Inslee said that middle-management positions in state government have increased 1,000 percent since 1993.

What we found: Mostly false.

Cries against bloated government are a staple of the campaign season, and this year's race for governor is no exception. Inslee and his Republican challenger, Attorney General Rob McKenna, have promised to reduce the number of state employees. But only Inslee has offered a specific target: middle managers.

Gov. Chris Gregoire described them as paper pushers when she targeted them for cuts in 2005.

"We need to push people out of management and into delivery of real services to real people," Gregoire said at the time, announcing plans to slash 1,000 managers from the rolls.

Inslee said she didn't go far enough. He said he would cut even more.

So whom is he talking about, and have their ranks really swelled 1,000 percent?

In short, Inslee is talking about a group of managers who had collective-bargaining rights and could be subject to union rules. Their numbers grew dramatically in the past, but nowhere close to what Inslee claims. It only seems that way because of the numbers he cites to chart their growth.

A spokeswoman for Inslee's campaign said the former congressman wants to cut managers from the Washington Management Service, a personnel system designed to give state agencies greater flexibility to hire, assign and deploy managers where they are most needed.

The system, widely praised when it was created by the Legislature in 1993, replaced 350 individual job classes that had collective-bargaining rights. To reclassify those jobs as management positions under WMS, agencies had to first identify and evaluate which positions qualified as management under the law, said Sandi Stewart, the executive manager who oversees the state's job classification and compensation structure, including WMS.

Moving employees into the new system took time — about four years, according to a report by the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.

In 1994 — the first year the program was up and running — 445 employees were moved into the WMS system. Four years later, when agencies had finished reclassifying the existing qualified positions, there were 3,619 employees. The Legislature's audit committee used that number as a baseline to chart the system's subsequent growth. By 2001, the program's growth was well into the double-digits, far outpacing general state employee growth, and attracting the attention of union leaders and legislators.

At its peak, in 2005, there were about 5,300 WMS employees.

That number has dropped to 3,861 as of two months ago, said Tim Welch, public-affairs director for the Washington Federation for State Employees, the largest union representing state workers. The union has endorsed Inslee for governor.

In the 2011 fiscal year, 6.7 percent of the state's 60,698 general government employees were in the WMS, according to the state's Human Resources department. That's below the 7.5 percent cap imposed by the department in 2009. There are another 845 people working as managers outside the WMS, including agency directors, some elected officials and "at-will" employees, according to the Human Resources department.

So how did Inslee arrive at the 1,000 percent increase?

The figure was taken from a 2005 article in Governing magazine, which charted the program's growth from the year it started with 445 employees, and compared that number to WMS as its peak, when 5,300 employees were in the system, his campaign spokeswoman said.

But those numbers distort reality.

A more accurate accounting would use the number working as managers in 1998 — the audit committee's baseline year, and compare it to the number now in the system. That would show a 6.7 percent increase.

People will no doubt argue, as Inslee does, that there are still too many middle managers in government. You can argue that elsewhere.

The numbers Inslee cited are accurate for the years used for comparison, so there is an element of truth in his assertion. But they don't reflect how the program actually grew once it was in place, or the number of managers today. So we find his claim mostly false.

Staff researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @susankelleher.

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