Why does San Diego struggle to fill city jobs? Blame bureaucratic, inefficient hiring processes, audit says

San Diego City Hall
(John Gastaldo)

San Diego can’t hire city workers quickly enough to provide quality customer service partly because its hiring process is bureaucratic, inefficient and unnecessarily long, a new audit says.

Key reasons that more than 1,000 of the city’s roughly 12,000 jobs are typically vacant include a 60-step hiring process that takes an average of nine months, the audit says. And nearly 20 percent of vacant jobs take more than 14 months to fill.

The audit says San Diego’s hiring process takes 42 percent longer than the average for government organizations, based on a 2018 survey by

The large number of city vacancies has been blamed for long wait times in getting broken streetlights repaired, incorrect water bills fixed, illegally parked cars towed and many other customer service complaints addressed.

The 64-page audit, released last week by City Auditor Andy Hanau, recommends some fundamental changes to the city’s hiring process.

They include significant streamlining, including elimination of some redundancies, and new efforts to monitor how long hiring is taking place and to set goals for speeding up the process.

For example, the audit recommends that the city’s Personnel Department sharply reduce the number of forms applicants must fill out from the more than 90 now required of new hires.

Some of the recommendations could be controversial, such as a suggestion that the city no longer require prehire drug tests for workers not involved in jobs related to public safety.

The audit comes nearly a year after city leaders decided against putting a measure on last November’s ballot that could have given Mayor Todd Gloria more power over hiring city workers by allowing him to take over some personnel operations.

Decision prompted by Personnel Department promises to accelerate hiring, supporters say

Aug. 2, 2022

That decision was prompted by promises from the Personnel Department to make significant operational changes, such as new recruiting policies for hard-to-fill jobs, more effective use of technology in the hiring process and better cooperation among city departments.

The audit determined that jobs for which hiring is controlled by the mayor instead of Personnel take an average of eight months to fill, not much less than Personnel’s nine-month average.

Other reasons cited for the city’s vacancy problem have been lower pay than other government agencies and the city’s nearly decade-long lack of pensions for new hires after a 2012 ballot measure eliminated pensions for all new workers except police officers.

But that measure, Proposition B, has been overturned by the courts, and new city employees have been receiving pensions since summer 2021.

And most city employees got pay raises this spring totaling 23 percent over three years, which officials say boosts pay for most jobs to roughly the median for government agencies in the region.

The city’s tentative new contracts with two unions would raise employees’ pay by 22.8 percent by July 2025, in an effort to bring their pay in line with their counterparts at other agencies.

May 1, 2023

The hikes for deputy city attorneys follow similar raises given to half of the city workforce. Collectively, the cumulative costs are $537 million over the next four fiscal years.

June 9, 2023

So the city’s relatively slow hiring process appears to be the last major cause of the vacancies left to be solved.

The audit included 12 separate recommendations — eight for the Personnel Department and four for the mayor — and city officials agreed to implement them all either this year or by the end of 2024.

They include creating a central point of oversight and coordination for hiring, setting goals for how long each step of the process should take and eliminating redundant or unnecessary steps.

City officials also should start monitoring how long new hires are taking for each department and propose changes to make the process more efficient and effective, the audit recommends.

In addition, the audit says, departments should be allowed to begin the hiring process as soon as they’re aware of an upcoming vacancy. The report says some departments don’t begin the process until after a departing employee’s last day at work.

Finally, the audit says, Personnel should develop a step-by-step guide showing the entire hiring process that is “clear, understandable, up-to-date and easy for all city stakeholders to find.” ◆