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Solving City Government’s Biggest Human Resources Problem

NYC's Department of Records and Information Services has a storage facility at the Surrogate's Courthouse, above.

City of New York employee Ken Cobb may not know it yet, but he’s helped to lay a foundation for the next generation of local government.

Cobb’s city agency recently went through a strategic planning process with the help of nonprofit Public School. The agency, NYC’s Department of Records and Information Services, or DORIS, got a much-needed map for future growth. (It preserves current and historical records and access to them for 50 city agencies, 10 courts, and the five district attorney’s offices.) The outside facilitators also walked away with something: real-world case studies that will inform the training of future government employees.

“We don’t believe in training for training’s sake,” says Dave Seliger, Public School’s founder and executive director. “A lot of my engineering education was about building things and creating products from scratch. There’s similarities to other work — it doesn’t matter if it’s designing a better smartphone or a better social services program. You’ve got to understand the problem, research, come up with a new idea, test it out, deliver it, market it.”

Seliger has city government experience, in a true trial-by-fire situation. Two weeks before Superstorm Sandy in 2012, he started working at NYC Emergency Management. As he met colleagues and made friends from other city agencies, often through informal interagency speaker forums he helped to organize, Seliger learned that many in management positions with responsibility for program design and project management had gotten very little if any training in key skill sets for such positions.

There was some education for a few human resources basics, such as anger management or writing better emails, but not much more sophisticated beyond that, he says. Seliger felt largely unprepared for much of the work he was tasked with doing. “There was nothing like training for strategic planning or community engagement or these things I was constantly being asked to do and had no training or understanding of how to approach them,” he says.

Seliger eventually went to work in the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation. It took around a year to transition from one city agency to another.

“I was actually accidentally fired in the process because somebody clicked the wrong button,” he says. It opened his eyes even more to the challenges of human resources — recruitment and hiring, talent development, retention. In his view, it’s one of the three biggest challenges in government, along with technology adoption and procurement reform. But according to Seliger, there is plenty happening around those two, like Code for America or NYC’s public procurement process improvements.

“No one’s talking about human resources,” he says. “Just the name, human resources, it’s the least interesting name you could think of. I don’t know anyone that grows up saying they want to work in HR. For me, working on problems no one wants to touch is the most interesting thing. It means there is a lot of room for opportunity and for actual change.”

Seliger left city government about a year ago to start Public School, which has conducted workshops for 15 city agencies so far, including the departments of City Planning, Housing Preservation and Development, Parks and Recreation, Health, Veterans Services, the Brooklyn Public Library, and DORIS.

“One of the very good things about Public School was for us, they managed to have us engage quite literally everyone in the agency at some level,” Cobb, who’s assistant commissioner at DORIS, says. “And they helped us come up with ways to do performance measurement. It’s easier to come up with a plan, it’s much harder to come up with a way of evaluating to see if you actually do it.”

Besides offering key management training that Seliger wished was in place when he was in government — and doing it in a real-world setting where agencies get to tackle a concrete challenge they actually need to solve — Public School has a bigger mission, says Seliger, one fed by Cobb and DORIS’ strategic plan work.

“We’re trying to figure out the skills and the competencies that public servants need,” he says. “We’re prototyping it with our training, because we have real case studies from training 15 agencies in different skill sets. Let’s now bring these skill sets to the next generation.”

Seliger wants to build a comprehensive fellowship program cutting across all city agencies. The timing could hardly be better, as many city workers are gearing up for retirement. NYC has around 325,000 employees, and 110,500 of those will be eligible for retirement by 2020. That’s one-third of the city workforce potentially leaving in the next few years. Other big cities are in even more precarious positions: In Los Angeles, 46 percent of local government workers are eligible for retirement over the next few years, and in Philadelphia, it’s 45 percent.

Replacing them is a huge challenge that few want to think deeply about. Anecdotally, Seliger says, it typically takes a year from posting a job to someone new filling that position, thanks to the standard bureaucracy of city government hiring processes. “No one understands it because it’s so complicated,” he says. “If you’re coming from the private sector, trying to get a city job, and it takes six to 12 months, wouldn’t you obviously think ‘they don’t want me’? So a lot of people drop out, and then you have to start the whole hiring process again.”

In addressing the need to hire staff more efficiently to replace retiring city employees, Seliger also wants to help city governments confront a lack of diversity. For instance, there’s a racial discrepancy between those who take civil service tests for management positions within city government and those who get the jobs, according to city data.

“Middle management in government is simply whiter than the test-takers,” Seliger says.

Early on in his research into the issue, Seliger came upon a key ingredient for a solution to address the retirement issue and the diversity issue at the same time. Public universities are able to hire full-time staff and detail them as city government workers much more quickly than it takes for the city to hire full-time workers. From 2011 to 2015, NYC’s Human Resources Administration (HRA for short, and a confusing name, since it is actually the agency responsible for distributing public assistance like food stamps and welfare) used this approach to jointly operate an information technology specialist fellowship with the City University of New York.

Under the HRA-CUNY fellowship, graduates of CUNY’s information technology internship program could get a full-time position with benefits, working at HRA, at a starting salary of $18 an hour, and up to $35 an hour. The city compensates CUNY directly, paying the cost of salary and benefits for each fellow hired. Fellowships could last up to three years, and are designed to give time for fellows to graduate, take a civil service test and also gain the full-time work experience often required to get a conventional full-time city position. It’s a much more robust and better-paying fellowship than Seliger had typically seen.

“There’s a lot of fellows from Ivy League schools, which is really not tapping into the local talent pool,” Seliger says. “Then you have all the AmeriCorps programs, City Service Corps, civic corps, community school corps. The problem is they pay $12,000 as a stipend, so few can really afford to do it.”

NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) is now working with CUNY to recruit fellows using the same structure. “I call it a hack,” he says.

Seliger envisions Public School supporting similar fellowships across all city agencies using the public university “hack.” During the fellowship period, each cohort would receive additional management training using real-world case studies drawn from Public School’s boot camps with city agencies. Drawing from public universities like CUNY will mean a more diverse talent pool: CUNY’s student body is nearly evenly white, black, Hispanic and Asian. The method could be applied outside NYC too.

“It’s not just a NYC solution, it could work in any other city or state with public universities,” Seliger says. “I started talking to a few other cities. I think some might be doing it at the community college level, but it’s not something that’s a widely known thing. No one wants to think about HR.”