New Audit Rings the City Hire Alarm

New Audit Rings the City Hire Alarm

File photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego City Hall

You could conceive and give birth in the time it takes to hire a new city worker, according to a recent city audit.

Reviewers found it took an average of about 280 days to hire a new employee, far surpassing best practices — guidelines for federal agencies, for example, call for hiring staffers within 80 days. They presented the report to the city’s audit committee Thursday.

The audit comes amid city discussions about the reality that roughly 3,000 city workers will be eligible to retire within the next five years, requiring a significant uptick in recruiting after hiring freezes and cutbacks that slowed such efforts.

Personnel Director Hadi Dehghani, whose department currently handles about 60 percent of the hiring process, said they’ve made significant improvements the auditors didn’t capture in their review.

“This was their report,” Dehghani said at Thursday’s audit committee meeting. “They wanted to look at the data they wanted to look at.”

To conduct their study, auditors randomly selected 215 new city workers from five city divisions, including the police and transportation departments, as well as clerical staffers. All participated in the city hiring process between January and September of this year.

Auditors assumed the hiring clock started ticking when the employees submitted a job application and tracked their progress through the selection process.

What the audit found

They found, on average, that it took 282 days to hire a police or firefighter and 273 days for other city workers.

The audit described, among other conclusions:

• A lack of deadlines for job candidates to complete necessary assessments.

• Long periods where applicants remained in queue without updates from city recruiters.

• Repeated instances where city departments received lists of eligible candidates but took weeks to conduct interviews and make job offers. The latter process took almost four months, on average.

• At least some improved coordination between the personnel department and the city’s public safety departments, particularly with police officials.

What auditors recommend

Auditors suggested the city could cut hiring timelines in half with some changes. They included:

• Adding filters to screen out unqualified applicants, particularly for the police department.

• Creating ideal schedules for testing and other steps in the hiring process, and regularly review whether the city is meeting those targets.

• Having city departments assess their long-term workforce needs to allow the personnel department to establish plans to fill positions in coming years.

Dehghani’s department agreed with most of those recommendations but he was critical of the numbers auditors presented.

He told the audit committee the findings were skewed by the timing of the review. The auditors randomly selected some workers who began the hiring process in 2011, around the time the department implemented a new recruitment system.

Dehghani also criticized the auditors’ decision to incorporate public-safety workers.

“The recruitment for police, for fire and for non-safety (workers) are very, very different,” Dehgani said. “You can’t just throw all of them in there and say by doing that you are going to cut in half the time it takes to hire.”

But the city auditors took up the review in late summer, shortly after police said some applicants waited as long as 14 weeks for a response or update on the next step in the hiring process. The department has expressed frustration about its ability to recruit new officers at a time the force is struggling to replace departing officers.

The auditors began their analysis and selected random samples beginning this August.

The personnel department has since worked on improvements and Deghani said he’s provided new performance numbers to an independent budget analyst who is set to release a separate report next week featuring suggested improvements for the city’s hiring process.

Audit manager Matt Helm acknowledged the hiring processes may have improved but stood by the report. He said auditors relied on data that was available and selected a sample that was statistically responsible. Still, Helm said, the city should focus on improvements that need to be made.

“We’re getting hung up on the data and not what the fix is, not what the problems are,” he said.

Councilman Scott Sherman took the auditors’ side when he questioned Dehghani.

“It sounds like somebody doesn’t like the audit and wants to get away from it,” he said. ”Quite frankly, if we’re taking that long to hire people, there are a lot of really good potential hires that said, ‘Heck with it,’ and looked for other jobs (elsewhere).”

Dehghani said he understood the scrutiny.

“We have done a lot of process improvement,” Dehghani said. “If you are looking at lots of data that is no longer valid, of course you are going to get concerned.”

Just how much progress the personnel department has made isn’t clear. Dehghani couldn’t be reached for comment after the meeting.

The committee decided to table the audit for a month before sending it to the full City Council for further review. They asked Dehghani and two officials with the police and fire departments to send written comments to the city auditor before then.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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21 comments
Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

I would love to see proof of a recruitment problem.
The last round of Police hiring for the open positions there were approximately 300 applicants that had made it through the initial written test and screenings. There are 40(?) open positions.
Seems like a good size pool of applicants wanting those jobs.
What are the actual numbers for applicants for other job postings and how many positions are available?
Jobs with the city are considered valuable. I would love to see a fact check of the "lack of qualified candidates mantra".

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

I would love to see proof of a recruitment problem.
The last round of Police hiring for the open positions there were approximately 300 applicants that had made it through the initial written test and screenings. There are 40(?) open positions.
Seems like a good size pool of applicants wanting those jobs.
What are the actual numbers for applicants for other job postings and how many positions are available?
Jobs with the city are considered valuable. I would love to see a fact check of the "lack of qualified candidates mantra".

vdj
vdj

The City does not posts jobs for an average of 52 days. Take a look a the jobs they chose to add it to inflate the average....most jobs for the city are open for a couple of weeks.....go online and check.

vdj
vdj

And lastly, it's not the hiring timeline that has caused qualified candidates to shy away from the City...it's the pay cuts, benefit cuts, mandatory furlough, and the constant belittling of the current employees. Qualified candidates will go to other agencies that pay more and have better benefits. So the next time Council wants to point fingers about why the city cannot effectively hire and retain "qualified" individuals, they should look at the ripple effect of their actions first. Past Mayors and Council members have taken away from City employees for years and have bragged about it in the media....the same media your "qualified" applicants are exposed to.

vdj
vdj

Unfortunately a lot of people will read this article and formulate an opinion, but never read the audit report, nor will they take the time to understand the policies in place when hiring for the City. The report is far from accurate due to a number of variables which impact the individual "new hires" the auditors chose to identify and report on. Some new hires take weeks, and yes some take months....but you have to understand why. The auditors are counting from the time a job is posted...not when the hiring list is actually available, and not when the true hiring department has identified and hired the candidaets (Personnel does not do the hiring). So if Personnel was informed that there is a chance a number of people may leave for retirement in June, Personnel can open numerous recruitments to application in March or April in "anticipation" of the current staff leaving....which can leave a couple month window from time of application to time of vacancy. So the audit report doesn't indicating that more often than not the true "hiring" departments don't have thier paperwork in order or positions properly budget in order to hire.
Another example is the numbers for Police and Fire hiring. You can't hire someone if there are no academies scheduled, regardless of when the person applied. But the audit report isn't considering the fact that the City Council did not give additional money to Police and Fire until recently...did you all forget about "rolling blackouts". So you have candidates waiting on a list, but no money to hire the additional staff...but all that time waiting on the hiring list was "averaged" and gathered from a sample of a handful of candidates...yet blamed on the wrong City Dept. If you want to understand the audit report, you have to understand the "candidate pools" they chose to audit.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

Cut the timeline in half is he recommended goal? This is absurd. I’m speaking as an ex-human resources director of an aerospace company. My industry has frequent ups and downs because of an extremely capricious primary customer (The U.S. military), and we often need to respond fast to fill numerous openings. We always involved the hiring supervisor at the outset, and made sure he or she understood being available for interviews was a very high priority and if we got repeated problems their higher ups would get the message. We expedited every activity, from checking references to administering various tests and physical exams, and decided up front who had decision making authority. If there was lack of cooperation or it became obvious the opening wasn’t really important to be filled, we simply canceled the employment requisition and the hiring department had to go through the authorization process again. Worked like a charm, although I wasn’t the most popular guy in town.

We were consistently able to go from initial contact to offer in two weeks or less, and I think other people in private sector companies would give you similar stories. Why the urgency? Simple. Good candidates don’t hang around; they have multiple resumes out and networks that are turning up other possible opportunities. San Diego needs to simplify and speed up it’s employment process. And please, don’t tell me the legal requirements are vastly different or the job requirements are tougher in the public sector. It’s the bureaucracy, stupid!

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

Cut the timeline in half is he recommended goal? This is absurd. I’m speaking as an ex-human resources director of an aerospace company. My industry has frequent ups and downs because of an extremely capricious primary customer (The U.S. military), and we often need to respond fast to fill numerous openings. We always involved the hiring supervisor at the outset, and made sure he or she understood being available for interviews was a very high priority and if we got repeated problems their higher ups would get the message. We expedited every activity, from checking references to administering various tests and physical exams, and decided up front who had decision making authority. If there was lack of cooperation or it became obvious the opening wasn’t really important to be filled, we simply canceled the employment requisition and the hiring department had to go through the authorization process again. Worked like a charm, although I wasn’t the most popular guy in town.

We were consistently able to go from initial contact to offer in two weeks or less, and I think other people in private sector companies would give you similar stories. Why the urgency? Simple. Good candidates don’t hang around; they have multiple resumes out and networks that are turning up other possible opportunities. San Diego needs to simplify and speed up it’s employment process. And please, don’t tell me the legal requirements are vastly different or the job requirements are tougher in the public sector. It’s the bureaucracy, stupid!

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Hi Lisa.
If you check you will see the county is experiencing the same problems. Don't know if the city goes through an outside agency but with the county there is a backlog in the Background checks. they go through an outside agency

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Hi Lisa.
If you check you will see the county is experiencing the same problems. Don't know if the city goes through an outside agency but with the county there is a backlog in the Background checks. they go through an outside agency

Jeff Toister
Jeff Toister

Fact check: According to the report, the hiring process starts when a job opening is certified, not when a candidate submitted their application. This is the way time to fill is commonly measured and really makes the results look poor.

Thanks for providing a link to that audit report. The report was very poorly written with essential information scattered throughout and important information (like a data summary) completely missing.

Jeff Toister
Jeff Toister subscriber

Fact check: According to the report, the hiring process starts when a job opening is certified, not when a candidate submitted their application. This is the way time to fill is commonly measured and really makes the results look poor.

Thanks for providing a link to that audit report. The report was very poorly written with essential information scattered throughout and important information (like a data summary) completely missing.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Can you say
supply and demand? Hello.
As an employer this is your shot at the vetting process because once hired the dynamic changes
Key here. background
Jobs are short and employers, including government , are in the drivers seat.
I

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Can you say
supply and demand? Hello.
As an employer this is your shot at the vetting process because once hired the dynamic changes
Key here. background
Jobs are short and employers, including government , are in the drivers seat.
I

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger

I understand that there are many elements that make it harder to hire in the public sector. Lots of rules and processes. High standards in some cases.

An old saying seems to apply here; "what gets measured gets results".

One thing is undeniable; lots of people want those jobs.

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger subscribermember

I understand that there are many elements that make it harder to hire in the public sector. Lots of rules and processes. High standards in some cases.

An old saying seems to apply here; "what gets measured gets results".

One thing is undeniable; lots of people want those jobs.

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt

Thanks for the tip, Mark.

This audit certainly piqued my interest in other government hiring timelines. The auditors told me they looked at a handful of other municipalities and they all had shorter hiring time averages than the city of San Diego. The audit manager said they couldn't share this information in the audit or with me because the municipalities asked to not be identified. The county may have been one of them.

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt author

Thanks for the tip, Mark.

This audit certainly piqued my interest in other government hiring timelines. The auditors told me they looked at a handful of other municipalities and they all had shorter hiring time averages than the city of San Diego. The audit manager said they couldn't share this information in the audit or with me because the municipalities asked to not be identified. The county may have been one of them.

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt

Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment.

I checked this with the auditors before writing this story and they said the 280-day count began when potential employees submitted their applications. I'd agree this could have been more clearly stated in the audit itself because starting the clock at the point of certification would've added considerable time.

One interesting fact from the report I didn't mention in my post is that the city tends to advertise open positions for an average of 52 days, which the auditors say is far longer than other government entities they consulted. They also didn't factor into this figure into the overall 280-day average.

Lisa Halverstadt
Lisa Halverstadt author

Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment.

I checked this with the auditors before writing this story and they said the 280-day count began when potential employees submitted their applications. I'd agree this could have been more clearly stated in the audit itself because starting the clock at the point of certification would've added considerable time.

One interesting fact from the report I didn't mention in my post is that the city tends to advertise open positions for an average of 52 days, which the auditors say is far longer than other government entities they consulted. They also didn't factor into this figure into the overall 280-day average.

Jeff Toister
Jeff Toister

Thanks for the clarification, Lisa. Now the report seems really misguided since their time to fill calculation is incorrect. It can take a great deal of time to go from approving a job to actually receiving applications. And, in many organizations, employees apply for several positions at once or get their application "in the system" before a specific job is posted (I don't know if it works this way in the city).

The results of the report still look dismall, but it sounds like the auditors need to be audited.

Jeff Toister
Jeff Toister subscriber

Thanks for the clarification, Lisa. Now the report seems really misguided since their time to fill calculation is incorrect. It can take a great deal of time to go from approving a job to actually receiving applications. And, in many organizations, employees apply for several positions at once or get their application "in the system" before a specific job is posted (I don't know if it works this way in the city).

The results of the report still look dismall, but it sounds like the auditors need to be audited.