The Special Assistant Problem
Why we need to reform the civil service systemJanuary 1, 2001
In November of 2000, Supervisor Leland Yee held a special hearing of the Board of Supervisors’ Finance Committee to discuss the city’s use of the Special Assistant job category. In his remarks, Supervisor Yee mentioned that he had been led to call the hearing because of his indignation that two city staff people had taken leaves of absence to work against his re-election. This kind of activity, while legal since city employees can take leaves of absence for any reason, is indicative of current abuse of civil service-exempt positions. It illustrates a serious breakdown of the city’s personnel function and taxpayer accountability.
Until recent years, nearly all the city’s professional staff were hired under the civil service umbrella. Civil service is used world-wide to avoid the nearly universal temptation of people in power to fill available government jobs with their own supporters, relatives, and business associates. The civil service sector has been very effective in many jurisdictions in producing a qualified, experienced cadre of bureaucrats who have the institutional memory to guide the ever-changing cast of elected officials and to provide professional program management.
Unfortunately, San Francisco’s human resource function, responsible for the city’s hiring, has long been inadequate. Laboring under antiquated procedures and less-than-energetic management, the agency takes too long to fill job openings; tests so infrequently that many new hires are brought on as temporary employees and eventually tested after the fact; creates narrow job classifications, many of which have not been updated for years; and generally does not serve city managers’ personnel needs well.
This civil service bottleneck has created the need to increase hiring flexibility. The 1995 city charter sets out 17 employee categories exempt from civil service requirements. Most exempt employees are heads of departments, attorneys and other specialists at a policy-making level. There is also a category called “provisional appointments,” for which no eligible civil service list exists. Most “Special Assistants,” hired outside the civil service system with job tenure at the pleasure of management, fall under this category. They are generally wellpaid middle and upper managers. Until the last few years, these positions were limited in number and served as a stop-gap that enabled managers to hire a few people quickly for upper-level positions without getting bogged down in the civil service process. At the end of the Jordan administration, there were about 119 Special Assistant positions in city government.
Both now and in past administrations, some of these positions have been used to fulfill legitimate needs for specialized professional staff. The Solid Waste Management Program, for instance, traditionally has been staffed heavily with Special Assistants, which enabled it to hire good people quickly in the emerging fields of recycling and hazardous waste reduction. The Department of the Environment hired its Integrated Pest Management Coordinator as a Special Assistant because there was no similar job classification.
However, both now and in past administrations, those who were active in local politics could discern some troubling trends. One which came most readily to the eye was the number of people active in running and working on political campaigns— the winning political campaigns—who could be found later in city staff positions. With expertise in politics, or just the ability to pick a winner and put in the volunteer time, these people often had no apparent management or technical background. They could be found in the many programs under the Office of the Mayor, in staff positions for the Board of Supervisors and other elected officials, and occasionally in other agencies. If they could no longer be found at one city job, they could usually be found in another, often functionally completely unrelated. Often these people would take unpaid leaves of absence during the election cycle, returning to paid city employment afterward. Essentially, it becomes clear to the observer that public funds support some elected officials’ political campaign staff between elections.
One also notices that the children of past and present elected officials and commissioners are represented in city positions in numbers that are well past statistical probability given their percentage of the hiring pool.
Under the current administration, the number of special assistants has increased to more than 540. With this huge increase, along with the legitimate hires has come a new trend, broadening city patronage jobs beyond political support staff and junior relatives to encompass unqualified representatives of special interest groups. For instance, the Solid Waste Management Program, with its high percentage of Special Assistant positions, has seen many of them shift from professional to patronage appointments. Staff people in many other agencies will tell the same story, off the record, of course.
It has been said that the way democracy works is to put your supporters in the positions that are available, and that this is how it has always been done. However, it should be made clear that the city charter explicitly prohibits political appointments. The Director of Human Resources, upon being sworn into office, makes an oath and files in the office of the County Clerk the following declaration: “I am opposed to appointments to the public service as a reward for political activity and will execute the Office of Human Resources Director in the spirit of this declaration.” (§10.103). Nepotism and favoritism is prohibited and can be appealed to the Civil Service Commission (§10.101).
There are several reasons why these practices are prohibited, both on paper in San Francisco’s city charter and in fact in many well-run governments. First, providing jobs to unqualified people undermines the ability of government to perform the function to which the patronage appointment is made. Second, it makes a gift of public funds in a way that benefits the appointing officer, as a private individual, to the detriment of the general public. Third, it undermines the morale of well-qualified people working in the same agency, decreasing productivity and teamwork and increasing turnover. Finally, it destroys the public’s faith in their government.
San Francisco has no auditing body expressly charged with comparing the qualifications set forth for civil service-exempt positions with the résumés of those appointed to them, or examining the process by which those people are hired. It ought to have one. San Francisco has no program to encourage confidential reporting of patronage problems and other internal malfeasance to investigating authorities. It has a whistle-blower program, but that is activated only after retaliation has taken place, something most staff people will not want to risk. The official practice of the Ethics Commission, upon receiving a complaint containing allegations such as those discussed here, is to photocopy the complaint and send it to the agency chief complained about. This practice hardly encourages employees to bring these matters to light. The city desperately needs an expansion of its independent auditor program to begin regular audits that will uncover past bad practice and deter the future use of city staff positions as benefits for those close to the people we elect to represent us.
Going to the root of the problem, there is no good reason why San Francisco cannot reform its human resource function. Larger, more complex cities fill civil service jobs in a matter of weeks, while here it takes months. It is true that we have a complicated system of union representation, but municipal personnel management is not rocket science. The agency should be given the resources to create a reformed service that works as well as that of Portland, San Jose, or any other well-run U.S. city, and the incentive of knowing that if it doesn’t achieve significant improvements on a speedy timetable, other agency managers will be found to do the job. The Board of Supervisors should demand that the agency, working with employee representatives, come up with a strategic plan for reform, implement it, and measure its performance thoroughly and regularly. Civil service classifications for managers and most other areas in which Special Assistants are now used should be broad, with accountability for performance built in. With reform of the system, most professional staff positions should be returned to civil service, to avoid political patronage.
Until that time, appointing officers must commit themselves to the ethics of the oath made by the Human Resources director—that appointments to the public service should not be made as a reward for political activity— or as a result of personal connections, or for any other reasons not related to objective job qualifications. That express commitment, in writing, will give a standard to which they can be held accountable.
Most importantly, the public must insist on accountability from its government. It has been estimated that doubling the city’s independent audit budget, from $400,000 to $800,000 per year, would produce an ongoing, comprehensive program of performance audits of all city agencies. Past audits by the Budget Analyst have always saved more money than they cost. With this expansion of oversight, we would see the beginning of muchneeded reform, as San Francisco government begins to measure objectively and regularly how well it spends the public’s money, and taxpayers learn the value of the slogan, “Trust, but Verify.”