Philadelphia's 'Rule of 2' Limits Choices to Fill City Jobs, but That Could Change Soon

Voters will have a say on updating civil service employment regulations

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Philadelphia's 'Rule of 2' Limits Choices to Fill City Jobs, but That Could Change Soon
Job fair at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, PA
Alex Subers for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Editor's note: On Nov. 2, Philadelphia voters approved the ballot measure to eliminate the Rule of Two. 

Voters in Philadelphia this fall will decide on a proposed change to the city’s Home Rule Charter that would make it easier for hiring managers to select the best available people for civil service positions. They will consider eliminating what is known as the Rule of Two, which requires managers to choose one of the two candidates who scored highest on the necessary exam.

Philadelphia employs nearly 30,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees, whose compensation makes up 63.2% of the city’s budget. About 81% are designated as civil service employees, who play a critical role in the health, safety, and quality of life of residents. They respond to emergencies, ensure that children and youth are safe, monitor water quality, and keep the city clean.

Managers hiring for new civil service employees in Philadelphia face many barriers, including challenges with recruitment, the timing of exams, post-selection eligibility checks, and the time required to complete the hiring process. However, no challenge is more debated than the Rule of Two, which requires city hiring managers to select from the top two scoring candidates for any one vacancy. In practice, that severely limits the number of candidates whom a manager can consider.

A 2018 Pew report on Philadelphia’s employment practices found that the rule created a barrier to hiring in city government and limited hiring managers when selecting new employees, especially for open competitive positions. In fact, with the Rule of Two, Philadelphia has some of the most stringent restrictions on selection from eligibility lists among the largest U.S. cities.

Most cities, particularly those in the South and West, allow all candidates who passed an eligibility exam to be considered for hiring. Some require three candidates to be considered, while cities such as Columbus, Ohio, and Washington place candidates into tiers for consideration (see Table 1).

Table 1

30 Largest Cities Differ in Hiring Rules on Number of Candidates per Vacancy

Rule of Two Philadelphia
No fewer than two* Chicago
Rule of Three Boston; Denver**; Detroit; Jacksonville, FL; New York; San Francisco
Top three whole scores Los Angeles
All passing scores Austin, TX; Charlotte, NC; Dallas; El Paso, TX; Houston; Fort Worth, TX; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Louisville, KY; Memphis, TN; Milwaukee; Nashville, TN***; Oklahoma City; Phoenix; Portland, OR; San Antonio; San Diego; San Jose, CA; Seattle
All scores within a given range Columbus, OH****; Washington

* No fewer than two candidates can be considered per vacancy, but hiring managers can choose more candidates to interview for a position.

** Denver requires a minimum of three candidates who can be considered instead of a maximum.

*** Nashville ranks passing candidates into categories of preferred selection, but all candidates can be considered.

**** Columbus determines the number of eligible candidates by the number of vacancies.

Sources: Regulations for hiring new civil service employees from each city

These hiring regulations refer to most civil service positions, which, as defined by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, include categories such as sanitation, financial administration, corrections, and housing. Although public safety officials in Philadelphia such as police officers and firefighters are hired under the Rule of Two, these jobs are often filled through different processes in other cities.

In June, City Council proposed a charter change to eliminate the rule and introduce more choice for city managers in the hiring process. Because the Rule of Two is codified in the Home Rule Charter, any change requires voter approval. If the updated rule is endorsed by voters in November, the personnel director would have more flexibility to decide how many candidates can be considered for each vacancy.

With the change, hiring managers would be able to select from a predetermined number of candidates selected by the human resources director before the exam. The precise number would be based on the position and the needs of the civil service workforce.

City Council members say they want to address recruitment challenges and increase the racial diversity of the workforce with the policy revision. According to the city’s 2020 racial equity report on its full-time civil service workers, 49% are Black; 39% are White, non-Hispanic; nearly 7% are Hispanic; and 3.5% are Asian.

Compared with the city’s population, Black and White employees are overrepresented, while Hispanic and Asian workers are underrepresented. However, as highlighted in Pew’s 2018 report, job classes with higher compensation are disproportionately held by White civil service employees whose median compensation from 2010 to 2016 was $69,190. These salaries were significantly higher than those of other workers, particularly Black civil service employees, who earned a median salary lower than any other group at $45,821.

Pew research shows that in addition to limiting the number of candidates who can be considered for a vacancy, the Rule of Two dictates a cumbersome process that can lengthen the time needed to fill positions. As a result, some qualified candidates may drop out of contention, find other employment, or opt out of being interviewed for a position. And that could mean that the best match is no longer available. On average, Pew found, it took the city about a year to hire through the civil service system under the Rule of Two.

The proposed charter change would give the personnel director flexibility to consider how many candidates should be considered based on criteria for specific jobs or departments. More prospective employees could be assessed, and more candidates could be considered for competitive roles. With this change, Philadelphia’s hiring restrictions would be comparable to those of other cities that have systems in place designed to give managers increased discretion. This can result in timely, fair, and equitable hiring practices, which are essential to maintaining Philadelphia’s civil service.

Elinor Haider is a director and Katie Martin is senior manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative.

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