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Written Testimony on Proposal to Eliminate the “Rule of Two” in Civil Service Promotions and Hiring

June 8, 2021

City Council Committee on Law and Government

Thank you, Majority Leader Parker and members of the Committee on Law and Government, for hearing testimony today on this proposal to repeal the “Rule of Two” in Philadelphia’s civil service system.

As with much of the language in the Home Rule Charter, this provision was created in the mid-20th century in response to a different set of challenges in Philadelphia government and politics. The drafters were attempting to guard against mass patronage and widespread corruption that debilitated the City’s ability to act in the public interest. By at least one account, the dominant Republican machine of the time controlled more than 20,000 jobs, which generally came with the expectation that employees lend their support to the party and help guarantee wins on Election Day.[1] Civil service procedures were circumvented. There was no effective ban on political activity, and no independent Ethics Board or Chief Integrity Officer to ensure rules were followed. In this environment, it was urgent and necessary to limit City managers to a hire or promotion decision between only two individuals who scored highest on standardized exams.

The City of Philadelphia is not devoid of corruption, waste, fraud or abuse; but the challenges faced today are incomparable to those of 70 years ago. Patronage, in particular, is not a central concern across most of local government and generally limited to a few remaining entities not subject to civil service processes (e.g., Philadelphia Parking Authority, Register of Wills). Instead, the overriding challenge is to create and maintain a diverse, highly qualified and effective workforce. Granted, these goals are multifaceted and not easily achieved, but our assessment is that the Rule of Two stymies progress.

Greater flexibility in hiring and promotion in most major cities
A 2018 Pew Report[2] examining hiring and employment in city government highlights the stark contrast between Philadelphia and more than two dozen other major cities around the country. Nearly every city uses a testing regime to create lists of eligible candidates to draw from for new hires or promotions, but Philadelphia is unique in that it only allows for two candidates who can be considered from such a list. Eight other cities, including those with similar political histories like Boston, Chicago and New York, have Rules of Three, and Baltimore has a Rule of Five. The other 20 cities, however, have no such hard cap and instead allow hiring managers to consider all candidates depending on their exam results. The most common practice is to consider any candidate who passes all the requisite exams.

Until 2017, Detroit had used a more restrictive Rule of One, which was finally expanded to a Rule of Three with the government reform spurred by the city’s bankruptcy several years earlier. Pew gathered from several cities that a Rule of Three is still too restrictive and can preclude better candidates from consideration. Detroit’s chief recruitment officer stated bluntly: “It’s absolutely critical we select the best candidates because municipalities are underfunded and have challenges competing with the private sector...When we make a selection, we have to live with it; we have the employee for 30 years.”

Less qualified candidates, more persistent vacancies, and slower timeline
Civil service systems are, to an extent, inevitably cumbersome due to myriad rules and processes intended to build an enormous workforce in the public interest while guaranteeing fairness and transparency for job applicants. However, no business or nonprofit could compete and effectively achieve its mission if each hiring decision were limited between two people based primarily on test scores. Standardized examinations are a legitimate tool in assessing certain qualifications or competencies; but as is well known from the extensive debate on standardized testing in K-12 and higher education, exams can only assess so much.

Within the context of civil service, there are undoubtedly numerous circumstances where the third, fourth or fifth candidate on an eligibility list would be the preferred choice of a hiring manager for meritorious reasons, but those individuals are off the table solely because of exam scores. The manager has two options: hire or promote the individual who, in their judgement, is not the best person for the job; or keep the position open until another, more suitable candidate enters the top two. For job applicants, this pattern also lends itself to far longer wait times between the submission of their application and selection to a position—roughly a full year, according to 2013-2015 data analyzed by Pew. This obstacle to employment is substantial, shrinking the pool of qualified and diverse candidates who can pursue city work.

Considerations for implementation
As with any consequential policy change, measuring results will be critical to determine if progress is being made or, potentially, if undesired effects are produced. With regard to diversity, most of the needed demographic data is readily available but will have to be reviewed on a regular basis by department and by position. The same is true for vacancy rates, list length and exam scores. If not already used, surveys or focus groups could also help human resource officials gather feedback from hiring authorities and applicants going through the process.

We should anticipate however, that amending the Rule of Two alone will not move the needle far enough in reaching a workforce reflective of the city and with an abundance of highly-qualified candidates for every position. A substantially greater and strategic investment in recruitment and workforce development will be essential to build a more robust pipeline of applicants from across the city. Some departments, especially those with the most personnel, dedicate some resources to outreach and recruitment, but others lack the bandwidth or expertise for such efforts. Engaging meaningfully with large entities like the School District or Community College of Philadelphia takes staff time and funding, as does targeted outreach to communities currently underrepresented in city government. The Office of Human Resources would need more resources to effectively partner with the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and each of the various city departments under an overarching recruitment strategy to produce better results.

Philadelphia’s civil service system—most of which is 70 years old—is due for a comprehensive review and modernization overhaul. In the meantime, repealing the Rule of Two is a positive and consequential step forward in steadily building a more diverse and qualified workforce. We appreciate the efforts of Majority Leader Parker and the Kenney administration, in particular, for their leadership on long overdue reform.

Thank you.

Pat Christmas
Policy Director
​Committee of Seventy

 

[1] The Charter: A History. The Committee of Seventy. 1980.

[2] Hiring and Employment in Philadelphia City Government: An examination of the structure, processes and challenges with the current system. Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative, Pew Charitable Trusts. June 26, 2018