Behind the good intentions, it’s easy to see the failings of the system

Leonard Hyman is a Program Performance Auditor with the City of San Jose. He has a strong interest in civic innovation, good governance, emerging technology, and digital media. His career has spanned the public, private and nonprofit sectors with an emphasis on technology and public affairs.


In June 2014, I lined up outside Fairfax High School at eight in the morning on a Saturday with a few hundred strangers to take the Management Assistant exam––a test that qualifies applicants for entry-level managerial positions in Los Angeles’ civil service. I’d recently moved back to Los Angeles from DC, and was interested in working in government. A friend told me about the exam and encouraged me to take it, though I wasn’t clear on what would happen once I did.

I had been instructed to bring my ID and nothing else, not even a calculator. We would be doing long division by hand. Because of course, there would be long division. When we got into the classroom, we were handed a bubble sheet, the exam, and a set of number two pencils. The test turned out to be a lightweight version of the SAT: word problems, reading comprehension, verbal analogies. It took three hours.

I passed the exam. Two months later I got an invitation to a formal panel interview––three interviewers, five questions–– like a firing squad. I’d already landed another job, but I decided to go anyway. The panel asked every candidate the same five questions, so broad it was hard to see why they were useful. “What in your education and experience qualifies you to be a Management Assistant?” Or: “Tell us about a time you worked on a project that used data.”

In September, I received a score for the interview. I had no idea what it meant. Three months after that, I started receiving largely incomprehensible emails, with instructions to call LAX, or Housing, or Water and Power. I later realized that these were actually invitations for job interviews, prompted by my test score. So I went on a few interviews.

And in June, well over a year after applying to take the exam, I was offered a position with the Controller’s Office. As fate would have it, my job there was in Human Resources.  Not only did I continue to see this confusing and muddled process from the inside, but I also came to understand why bringing tech talent into government is so hard.

First, the number of positions is limited and adding new roles is difficult. Sexy jobs with “technology” and “innovation” in the title are exempt positions (generally political appointees) rather than civil service employees (government lifers working everywhere from accounting to systems development). Because it takes so long to get new exempt employees approved, people have to find creative ways to hire.

We tried a bunch of them. When the technology and innovation team wanted to hire a data scientist, they created a six-month “fellowship” with a salary slightly above minimum wage. It got three applicants.

We also tried bringing technologists on as civil servants. But that required sending tech professionals through the meandering process I’d experienced, which I realized only after I had been hired had an added Kafkaesque journey on the inside. The codified hiring process for civil servants ended up feeling almost stacked against bringing in the strongest candidates.

For example, when we wanted to hire a Systems Analyst, I first had to request something called a cert list––a long list of everyone who passed the civil service exam, ranked by how well they scored. My request triggered an email to every applicant on the list, notifying them to call me for an interview. As the calls came in I highlighted their names. We interviewed the applicants who called with the top six scores. (It was always the top six. I don’t know why.)

The interview questions from the hiring managers were as vague as the ones I answered when applying, like “What in your education and experience qualifies you to be a Systems Analyst?”.

Interviewers would rank candidate answers from one to five. Then I would add the scores. The top candidate would be offered the job. Even though government designs interview panels to be objective, the scoring criteria belies its absurdity. If a candidate’s description of their education and experience was “excellent,” they would receive a five, “good” for four, “satisfactory” for three, and so on.

It’s easy to see the effort to make hiring as fair and objective as possible. But behind the good intentions, it’s even easier to see the failings of the system. In this case, the civil service job title “Systems Analyst” is a grab bag of skills, encompassing everything from web development to database management.  If we needed a candidate with strong backend database skills, but the top six candidates didn’t have them, the office would close the position without hiring. Then we’d wait a few weeks, and repeat the process, hoping that some of those top six candidates had been hired elsewhere so we could interview ones with lower civil service scores who might have the skills we needed. It rarely worked. Instead, we’d end up interviewing the same candidates again, knowing it was a charade. Meanwhile, civil service positions would remain open for months.

Government employment is also designed for a different user than the typical tech professional. The long-standing incentives that attract people into civil service often don’t apply to technologists. Los Angeles’ designs its civil service for longevity. Salaries are fair, but the bigger draw is the pension. An employee who works for the City for 30 years and makes a final salary of $100,000 is entitled to an annual $65,000 pension, plus health benefits. Contrast that with a tech professional who changes jobs every few years, not just for promotions, but also to gain new skills.

Making matters more complicated are the rules that govern hiring experienced professionals. Los Angeles’ civil service was designed to promote from within. For most mid-level positions, the only legal option is to promote an existing employee. This practice effectively excludes mid-career professionals unless they’re willing to come in at the bottom.

I am not the first person to realize that the process is confusing. Employee associations, such as the LA Filipino Association of City Employees and the LA Association Black Personnel, host workshops and create study materials to explain the process and encourage young people from their community to pursue jobs in City government. Their members, city employees, know how hard it is to hire technologists. These are opportunities for alliances, not just to bring tech talent into government, but also to increase its diversity.

If we want to attract tech talent to government, creating more exempt positions and fellowships is a start, but it is only a stopgap. Changing the broader hiring process and how we qualify candidates is critical. For example, Los Angeles only accepts Systems Analyst applicants if they have a degree in Computer Science, Information Systems, or Geographical Information Systems. Boot camp graduates and self-taught developers are not welcome. Changing those types of criteria opens the doors to a wider applicant pool with tech skills.

But even small-scale change is hard. Until that change happens, we need to encourage tech professionals to untangle the clunky bureaucracy of government hiring. Learn the ropes. Find the jobs. Take the exams. You don’t even need a calculator.