Last Tuesday, a report by New York City comptroller Brad Lander sounded the alarm about high vacancies across city agencies, a crisis that risks a “severe lack of capacity to get things done in mission-critical areas.” After years of the Bill de Blasio administration’s nearly uninterrupted growth in government employment, the city employee headcount is now near decade lows; 21,000 agency jobs went unfilled as of last month, even with the city’s unemployment rate stuck far above the national average. The report suggests some avenues to improve hiring and retention. But Mayor Eric Adams has a larger opportunity to overhaul the massive city bureaucracy into a leaner, more efficient problem-solving force.
Some agencies’ vacancy rates are startling, though they are mostly concentrated among non-uniformed, non-educational services. The departments of buildings, finance, city planning, social services, and small-business services are at least 18 percent vacant. The Office of Technology and Innovation’s cyber-command unit, responsible for fending off cyberattacks on the city’s vast information system, lacked 36 percent of its workforce, despite heightened cybersecurity threats related to the war in Ukraine.
To address the shortage of city attorneys, Adams asked New York law firms last month to lend out their junior associates for short, Peace Corps–like stints in agencies’ legal departments. While a number of prestigious firms have signed onto the NYC Legal Fellows program, it suggests the city’s wider inability to attract full-time attorneys.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Adams ordered non-uniformed agencies to eliminate half of their vacant positions, subject to some exemptions, to avoid budgeting for those positions. No doubt the city bureaucracy has plenty of superfluous and low-value positions that shouldn’t be filled. A quick look at the city’s hiring page reveals open positions for an immigration-justice coordinator at the Office for Civil Justice, a diversity, equity, and inclusion specialist at the Department of Buildings, and a plethora of assistant deputy commissioner spots.
But the real task is not a simple 50 percent vacancy reduction. It is carefully to trim unnecessary positions and retain mission-critical ones, all without disrupting services that matter to New Yorkers, such as permit processing and inspection approvals. In the short run, the mayor should provide agencies with more-detailed guidance on eliminating bureaucratic positions.
Low pay relative to the private sector has also dampened enthusiasm for public-sector employment. A still-effective de Blasio-era memorandum from 2019 limits salaries for non-exempt new hires to essentially the minimum allowable. Most labor contracts between the city and municipal-employee unions have expired, adding a layer of uncertainty about future starting salaries, raises, and health-care costs in a difficult inflationary environment.
Lander recommends, among other things, allowing agencies to offer prospective hires at least up to the middle of the range for the position’s salary, as well as authorizing agencies to fill priority roles unilaterally, bypassing the convoluted monthslong process ordinarily necessary to approve new hires. These suggestions could allow Adams to capitalize on the downturn in private-sector employment that saw Meta, Twitter, Amazon, DoorDash, and others lay off thousands of New York City-based employees. The starting-salary mandate and long delays before starting all but shut out these newly unemployed prospects from applying.
The city would benefit from gaining some of them. Their private-sector, results-oriented training, experience, and skill set would likely translate into greater productivity compared with new graduates or applicants from the public sector. Higher pay should compensate for this greater performance, which could ultimately yield savings by having fewer workers achieve the same or better outcomes.
Another of the report’s proposals, appointing a “chief talent officer” with responsibility over citywide staffing, would, according to Lander, signal the city’s determination to solving the vacancy crisis. But learning the ins-and-outs of the city’s myriad offices would alone represent a daunting challenge, much less getting agencies to change. And it’s not clear that the mayor would invest enough authority in the chief talent officer to override decisions of agency leadership.
More important for long-term success is not merely staffing but achieving each agency’s core mission and the city’s key goals. Adams should thus consider how to align city workers’ incentives and innovate departmental processes to achieve citywide goals. He could start by convening and setting expectations for rank-and-file employees, agency heads, representatives from the Office of Technology and Innovation, and the deputy mayor for operations. Every employee and manager should be evaluated on his ability to provide effective solutions, which includes using technology and working across agencies. Lander suggests creating a program to “lend” one agency’s employees to others; the better approach would encourage employees to solve problems, regardless from which agency they originate.
Adams has repeatedly vowed to “get stuff done.” Now’s his chance to prove that that doesn’t mean doing things the same old way.
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images