Making Government Work: Speeding up Hiring

London Breed
7 min readDec 8, 2022

When we talk about getting the basics right in this city, that starts with having the workforce in place to deliver the critical city services our residents deserve. Our busses don’t arrive on time without operators. Our streets don’t get clean without the people picking up trash and washing the sidewalks. Calls for service don’t get responded to without police officers and fire fighters.

The COVID pandemic was an incredibly disruptive event for many reasons to both San Franciscans and our City as an organization. Included in this is the City’s ability to quickly hire people to fill vacant positions.

The City currently has nearly 4,800 open permanent positions — a vacancy rate of about 14%. This is substantially higher than pre-COVID levels and has notable implications.

Currently, it takes the City over 250 days to fill our average job vacancy. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear that it takes over eight months to fill one position, but we are doing something about it. And this long hiring process isn’t a new problem — it far preceded COVID, and it’s one we need to deal with for the long-term health of our City.

In our last budget, I funded a new team to focus on hiring reforms. During the pandemic we saw that when we cut down on bureaucracy, we can hire quickly as we did with hiring emergency nurses. This new hiring initiative is aimed at reducing our vacancy rate and speeding up our time-to-hire. The initial result of this work will be considered in just a few weeks on December 19 at our Civil Service Commission.

Through the proposals we are putting forward to the Civil Service Commission and with other operational changes, we believe we can cut that timeline of 250 days to hire by at least 50%. This would apply to many large-volume, entry-level jobs.

And to be clear: this is just a first step in what we need to do. Our goal with this effort is to go even further. But it’s a significant step and something we can build on. Through these efforts, we can make the City the best place to work and ensure that it can meet the needs of its constituents.

Mayor Breed joined Department of Public Works Apprentices to celebrate the signing of the Joint Apprenticeship Committee Agreement between the City and Laborers Local 261

Modernizing a 20th Century System

The roots of our current hiring process date back to the early 20th century, with hundreds of additional layers added over time. The City operates a merit-based system for hiring that is overseen by an independent Civil Service Commission and implemented by a combination of our Department of Human Resources and the individual departments seeking to fill roles. As a sign of the system’s age, our Civil Service Commission was founded in 1900. Various regulations and practices were added over the 120 years that followed. Many of these decisions, while they may have made sense individually at the time, have produced our lengthy and convoluted process.

As we undergo reform, our system should align with the tools and best practices available in 2022, not the early 20th century.

To identify and implement best practices across our entire process, we have met with two-dozen cities, counties, and states to learn about the innovative ways that they approach their own merit-based systems. We plan to adopt the best ideas for our City. We’re also implementing modern technological tools so that we can develop a more data-driven, human-centered hiring process.

Reform will take a lot of work and expertise, which is why our special project team in the Department of Human Resources is tasked with leading these reforms. This group includes a variety of experts within different domains, including software engineers, data analysts, organizational psychologists, project managers, and change management experts. As it conducts its work, this team will be meeting with stakeholders from all departments to build a broad coalition and ensure they’re part of the solutions we develop.

Mayor Breed joined labor leaders and elected officials to sign the first ever Joint Apprenticeship Agreement between the City, Laborers Local 261, and the State Department of Industrial Relations to train and provide skilled workers to multiple City agencies

Making Our System Operate More Efficiently

Here’s one example of modernizing our system that will save months: how we conduct basic entry exams.

Our civil service hiring system requires many different steps, the lengthiest of which involves completion of a structured exam for all candidates of certain roles. Today, this can often look more like the SAT than a modern hiring process. We only offer limited opportunities to take many of these exams, require candidates to come in-person to do so, and have them record answers in test booklets. These exams take time to schedule, hours to administer, and score. Moreover, the exercise of completing the exams is not always squarely related to the tasks and duties performed on the job.

This testing process is inefficient, outdated, and inconvenient for both candidates and our hiring teams.

To fix this, we’re moving to conducting exams online and on-demand. This will marry the technology available in 2022 with principles of our merit-based system. In the future, candidates will be able to complete exams online from the comfort of their homes shortly after applying for a job. Their responses will then be instantly scored.

This change alone is projected to reduce our hiring timeline by months.

San Francisco Police Department 2022 Promotion Ceremony

The Public Servants We Need When We Need Them

It all starts with our ability to get the word out about our exciting job opportunities. In some cases, we can be almost too successful with this — obtaining hundreds of applications for a single role. Other openings may receive fewer than 10. After screening out people who do not have the necessary skillsets, this can leave us with far fewer applicants than necessary to navigate a multi-stage interview process seeking to identify highly qualified individuals for our specialized roles. Hiring managers may thus need to extend the length of time a position is open in hopes that additional people will apply, and subsequently, that we’ll be able to find the right candidate for the job.

As an example of this, we had to undergo a lengthy hiring process to fill the role of our Chief Digital Services Officer when it recently became vacant. It took an extensive amount of outreach to identify a replacement, including active marketing on LinkedIn and through our various professional networks. To save time in the future, we need to ensure that an adequate number of candidates apply within a timely manner.

We plan to extensively market our job announcements to ensure that we get the most robust candidate pools possible. I’m confident that we’ll be able to attract high-quality individuals to fill our various roles if we can tell the story of the impact you can have working for the City. When I talk to workers, including many of those I grew up with, they often tell me how motivated they are by the impact they are having on the most pressing issues facing the City we all love.

We have already started this marketing efforts as many of our largest tech employers have begun to announce layoffs. As thousands of people are now looking for work, we’re making it known through a new tool that the City has thousands of exciting job opportunities. Through this tool already we’ve received inquiries from hundreds who are interested in job opportunities, and we’re working to deliver information on job opportunities that match the individuals’ skills and interests.

We’re eager through these efforts to reach out to all available talent pools, including the private sector, nonprofits, and our labor partners. We can do more to get the word out and I’m committed to doing so.

Leveraging Data to Make More Informed Decisions

As we make these reforms, data must drive our decisions. We’re leveraging data about our prior recruitments to identify pain points within the process and the best path forward. We’re convening data-focused meetings with key stakeholders from all departments. This effort will help to promote transparency and accountability across all the teams involved in hiring throughout the City. Again, the main goal of these meetings is to reduce our vacancy rate and improve our time-to-hire. We know from our benchmarking work that similar programs are in place at the City of Los Angeles, the City of Washington DC, and the Federal Government. I’m confident that we can replicate these practices here to ensure our HR teams can become better strategic business partners.

This is not headline-grabbing work but implementing these reforms will improve city services. It’s the kind of back to basics work our city needs to be focused on every day. Through these efforts we can make the City one of the best places to work, stay true to the principles of our merit system, and hire the people we need in a timely manner. I know that all San Franciscans are counting on it.

Mayor Breed celebrated this year’s Transit Workers Union Operators of the Month