A Former OMB Employee on the ‘Vicious Cycle’ Hobbling NYC Agencies
How a 2019 memo makes hiring new workers nearly impossible.
7:00 AM EDT on October 13, 2022
City workers have known for a long time that their agencies are bleeding talent, and that too few of the positions that are being vacated are getting filled. The reasons are manifold: COVID put a strain on City services that led to worker burnout; a rigidly enforced return-to-office mandate made City employment less appealing; and lowball salaries and bureaucratic delays made hiring and promoting workers all but impossible. As departments have emptied out, remaining workers have been asked to perform the work of multiple positions, leading to more burnout.
The result is a municipal government that is less capable of serving New Yorkers than it used to be. The Mayor's Management Report shows numerous indicators headed in the wrong direction: Streets are less clean. Affordable housing creation is down 45 percent. The City has only built two miles of bus lanes out of a promised 20 for the year, and bike lane roll out is similarly lagging. "We got to the point where we couldn't produce anything new," one recently departed Department of Transportation employee told Streetsblog recently. "We were just keeping the lights on."
To better understand what's happening on the inside, Hell Gate is running a series called "Working for the City," conversations with City workers and former City workers about how the crisis in staffing has affected their work. We're giving these workers anonymity because they fear professional repercussions for speaking out about their employment with the City.
To kick off the series, we spoke with a recently departed analyst at the Office of Management and Budget, whose work involved overseeing the budget of a major City agency, one whose rate of staff departures has garnered headlines in recent years.
The analyst told Hell Gate about an internal mandate that directs City agencies to only fill one position for every two that become empty, and a policy, outlined in a previously unpublished 2019 memo from City Hall, restricting departments to only offering applicants the very bottom end of the posted pay scale. Initially only applied to some positions, the policy has more recently been reinterpreted and expanded to include most City jobs, applying both to new hires and to internal promotions.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you come to work for New York City?
I really wanted to work for a city government that was progressive and could achieve a lot of things that are not really heard of in other U.S. cities.
I was hired into the Office of Management and Budget as an analyst. There are different kinds of units at OMB. Many units, like the one I was assigned to, are mapped to a specific agency. We get very in the weeds of that agency's budget. Part of my work was working on my agency's PAR review. PAR stands for "personnel action requests." It's basically the system in the City where, if an agency wants to hire a new person, it has to get OMB approval for that.
Why are we seeing the things we're seeing in City government right now? Why are so many positions unstaffed? Does that have to do with pay rates? With the return-to-work mandate? With people being overworked?
I think it's all very interconnected. These are all things that I was dealing with throughout the time I was at the City. I tried internally to help find ways that we could make positive change or improve processes, and frankly, I just sort of hit a wall of realizing that if any change is going to happen, it's not on a sustainable timeline. And the negative impacts of that are happening on a much faster timeline.
Pre-COVID, we only reviewed new hires. And we had a little more flexibility where if we recommended approval on a PAR, the OMB "front office" more often than not agreed with us and also unlocked it. It was more of a check the box thing, but since COVID, it has been a much longer process, unless there's political pressure to move certain hires through. And since COVID, OMB also approves all promotions, which has made the process a lot more complicated.
Okay, so let's talk about some of those other things, maybe starting with the pandemic, and then coming into the new administration. How did this snowball over time?
From the hiring rules perspective, when COVID came down, there was this complete freeze, if you will, on new positions, except for very special circumstances. And then there was this gradual opening up where we could start considering promotions. The City was operating on a three-to-one hiring basis: For every three people that left an agency, you could hire one person. Later, that changed to two-to-one. The two-to-one has been in place for a while, most of 2021 and into 2022.
Is that policy written down anywhere, that you can hire one person for every two who leave?
Another problematic dynamic with the City's hiring and workforce policies has been the discrepancies between what exists in officially communicated policy, what’s documented in City Hall memos, versus what is relayed over email, or over phone calls to agency heads. That becomes a game of telephone between OMB leadership down to the analyst who has to implement the rules, and at the agency level, agency heads down to HR leadership down to hiring managers trying to fill their jobs.
You're describing a sort of shadow policy, right? There's an official, documented policy on hiring, and then there's something that everybody knows, but it's not acknowledged in any sort of formal documentation.
Correct. There were also times where the shadow policies would change month-to-month and you were not necessarily aware of those changes until you submitted a promotion or hiring request that you previously thought would get approved, and it got denied. And you had to ask why.
That must have been maddening. Is that how you always learned about changes to the hiring restrictions? Or was it sometimes communicated to you by bosses?
Both. It was often relayed over email to Office of Management and Budget analysts. But we would always have to ask, can we share this with the agency in writing? And the answer was almost always, "No. You can call them and tell them, but you cannot relay it as official OMB policy."
So the agencies OMB was working with were even more in the dark than you were?
Well, there were isolated policy documents related to hiring and promotions that were okay to share with agencies. In 2019, there was a memo from the first deputy mayor at the time, Dean Fuleihan. It was colloquially known as the Dean Memo. Although broadly written, at first it was just directed to new hires, but then in 2021 and onward, its interpretation was expanded to also include promotions. Basically, the memo states that new hires have to be paid either your civil service title minimum, the very bottom of that pay range, or, if you come into a role with experience from another City agency, of two years or more, you can be paid the "incumbent rate" for that title, which is slightly higher.
Practically speaking, what does that mean for hiring?
Pre-COVID, the Dean Memo was really only being applied across the board to a couple of particular civil service titles: the Community Coordinator and Community Associate level. It was generally applied to other civil service titles, but it was easier to request an exception. For example, if you are hiring a technology professional, it's much harder to hire those positions at the starting rate for those civil service titles. As it went on, in the sea of changing guidance, we were sometimes told that not just new hires, but internal promotions also couldn't go above the minimum rate set in the memo.
And you're saying that over time this restriction spelled out in the Dean Memo came to be applied to more positions than just those two initial civil service titles.
Yes. Now it is applied to all titles except for managerial titles and some [other] limited exceptions. It's made hiring especially difficult, because for all these jobs, agencies are posting the position with the whole range for the relevant civil service title, and people are applying assuming their experience and qualifications will put them somewhere in the higher end of that range, but then the agencies are only allowed to actually offer the applicant the very bottom of that range.
So did you start to hear from the agency you were working with that it was getting hard to hire people?
Yes, impossible to hire. And I think, especially for the agency I worked with, one of the bigger impacts was the inability to promote people, while their coworkers were leaving. [Remaining staff] were getting more work as a result of that, and it sort of spun out of control in a vicious cycle. It created an exodus that was unsustainable for some teams, and meant that their work slowed down, especially because the kind of work they do is very nitty-gritty; it takes a lot of institutional knowledge to be able to do it effectively. Each time someone left, there was a lot of institutional knowledge that went with them. And I saw the consequence of that. The agency I was working with was losing hiring managers, and as they had fewer hiring managers, they were getting less done than they had in prior years.
On top of everything else, they're losing the capacity to hire other positions as hiring managers leave and aren’t replaced.
Right. And as there were fewer project managers working on a particular program, there were fewer projects getting underway and reaching completion.
Did you see any increase in attrition that you would attribute to the return to office?
Yes, anecdotally, but I didn’t see any tracking on departure reasons. Personally, it's a big reason why I left.
And that also accelerates the vicious cycle of departures and unsustainable workload and more departures?
Yes, it does.
Contacted for confirmation and comment on the substance of this interview, a City Hall spokesperson disputed our interviewee's claim that City departments are often in the dark about hiring policy, telling Hell Gate: "Agencies are made aware of hiring policy changes as they are put in place." The spokesperson added that not all managerial hires are exempt from the Dean Memo strictures, and that it never applied to just two civil service titles. They noted that currently, the City exempts public health and public safety positions from the salary restrictions, along with other case-by-case exceptions. More broadly, the City Hall spokesperson said that the City's hiring policies allowed it to navigate the drop in revenue that accompanied COVID without having to resort to layoffs. "The city's labor shortage is part of a nationwide trend that impacts both public and private employers," they said.
Are you a current or recent city employee who wants to tell Hell Gate readers (anonymously, if you must) what's going on in your department? Drop us a line:
Nick Pinto served two tours as staff writer at the Village Voice. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gothamist, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, The Intercept, and elsewhere.
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