Rethinking Residency Requirements

Residency requirements for municipal employees are a contentious topic among local government officials, city employees, and taxpayers.

The idea that city employees will be more invested in their jobs and perform at a higher level if they live in the cities for which they work underpins most of the logic behind municipal residency requirements. Critics of these policies say it limits the personal freedom of city employees and shrinks the pool of potential candidates for local government jobs.

It is interesting for me to note the role that the City of Philadelphia has played in establishing the legal foundation supporting municipal residency requirements—a well known 1976 Supreme Court Case brought by a Philadelphia firefighter upheld the constitutionality of these policies. My own experience with residency requirements also comes from the City of Philadelphia and it has very much informed my opinion of these policies in general.

I believe that the single most effective way that city governments could improve their ability to recruit and retain talented technology employees is to eliminate residency requirements for IT staff.

Before the Board

Soon after the euphoria and excitement of being selected as the City of Philadelphia’s first Chief Data Officer wore off, my wife and I were faced with the sobering reality that we would need to find a new home. Philadelphia requires employees to “establish [their] bona fide residence in the City within six months of [their] appointment.” The day after I began my new job, we put our home in Wilmington, Delaware, on the market and began to evaluate different neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

In some ways, we had it easier than others who might have had to relocate—we lived less than 30 miles from Philadelphia, and my wife had worked in the University City section of Philly for several years. She wouldn’t need to find a new job, but we would need to find new childcare for our two children (and the third that was on the way). We also wanted to make sure that the neighborhood where we relocated had good amenities for kids and was in the catchment area for a good school, which can be a challenge in Philly.

Despite our advantages, this process (not surprisingly) was enormously stressful and disruptive for our family, and took a lot longer than we initially anticipated.

Philadelphia’s residency requirement authorizes a body called the Administrative Board to grant waivers for up to six months at a time. As the six-month deadline on my residency closed in, I was told to prepare for a meeting with the Administrative Board where I could request a six-month extension.

In preparation for this meeting, I was told to put together a written request with details on why I would need an extension and to demonstrate that I was making a good faith effort to relocate. This made sense, and I could clearly demonstrate that my house had been on the market since the second day of my employment with the city. I could even share the details of the one and only purchase offer we had received by that time, which had unfortunately fallen through, and that we had subsequently lowered our asking price to expedite a sale.

But then, I started to get more ominous advice from my boss and others who had gone in front of the Board before me. I was told that the Mayor regularly grilled those that came before the Board asking for a residency extension, pointedly asking them why they weren’t trying hard enough to move into the city. This advice was framed in the context of “he’s just going to give you the business, he does that to everybody…”

Still, I was nervous as I made my way to City Hall to appear before the Administrative Board.

When my spot on the agenda came around, I was indeed asked very pointedly by the Mayor why I had not yet relocated: “Are you trying to avoid the city’s requirement to relocate?” Given the time, effort, and money my wife and I had invested in trying to move to Philadelphia for the privilege of working for the city, I was a bit taken back by these questions, and more than a little offended.

But my discomfort paled in comparison to another applicant at the same meeting. Like me, he was also an employee in the technology department. Unlike me, he was there to request a second six-month extension to the residency policy. The members of the Board and others assembled in the City Hall conference room that day seemed to almost lean forward in preparation of the interrogation that this guy was going to get when the meeting agenda came around to him. Thinking back, I recall feeling an odd mixture of anticipation and embarrassment.

After an initially spirited grilling, it quickly became apparent that my fellow applicant was facing some serious issues. He was going through a messy divorce and child care dispute, and he was underwater on the mortgage for his house. He wanted to relocate but was simply unable to due to some awful personal circumstances. The Board rapidly lost its appetite for grilling him and quickly concluded its business for the day.

I don’t relate this story to take cheap shots at the Mayor or any other city official; they may feel they have good reason to approach requests for waivers to the city residency policy in this way. As one Deputy Mayor remarked to me when I discussed it with him,“This is just how we do things, this is just how we do it.”

It did, however, make a significant impression on me.

I distinctly remember leaving City Hall after that meeting and thinking that if one were to sit down and design a system that attracted highly talented, highly passionate technology employees into city government,  it would look like the exact opposite of what I had just experienced.

Technology Employees are Different

Technology employees are fairly unique among those that work in government.

For many of the job types that support core government services—teachers, police, firefighters, building inspectors—governments are not usually in direct competition with the private sector for the skills required for these jobs. This is not universally true; there are plenty of jobs that have applicable skills sets in both the public and private sectors—doctors, electricians, administrative assistants, etc.—and sometimes teachers and firefighters leave government and take up private sector jobs in their industry.

But technology employees are an exception. In almost no other job type are the skills required to do it as evenly applicable to both public sector and private sector positions. The skills required to manage IT systems, build software applications, administer databases, and develop websites are the same whether an IT worker is employed by the government, a private company, or nonprofit.

When school districts recruit teachers, they are largely competing against other school districts for the talents of people that are trained and certified to teach. When governments recruit technology employees, they are almost always competing with private sector employers who can offer higher salaries, better benefits, and the option to work remotely.

It isn’t a level playing field, and residency requirements for government technology employees skew it even further.

Equally as important, the technology industry is one where remote teams, or teams made up of employees from disparate locations, are common. The tools to support these kinds of teams are cheap, plentiful, and powerful and most technology employees have experience using them. Technology companies can leverage these tools and benefit from a significantly wider pool of potential employees—increasing the odds of recruiting more talented employees and usually speeding the time required to replace those that depart.

It’s worth noting that when I worked for the City of Philadelphia—at that time, a dozen years into the twenty-first century—there was no official remote work policy for technology employees. None. Not even a draft that was being developed.

In the City of Philadelphia, technology work is work that you do in your office or in another city building and it is reflected in its entirety in your bi-weekly timesheet. Period.

Time for a Mindset Change on Residency

The experience of 18F and the United States Digital Service at the federal level show that there are talented technology workers—lots of them—who are committed to public service. Governments actually can recruit top talent, and bringing these workers into government to work on really difficult issues can make a difference.

One of the primary disadvantages that cities and counties have in attracting highly skilled technology workers (and keeping them) is the requirement that they live within specific geographic boundaries.

As we move further and further into the digital age, the governments that are most successful at exploiting technology to improve performance and efficiency will be those that are built to attract and retain highly skilled technology employees.

It’s time for local government to rethink residency requirements for technology employees.

2 comments

  1. bensheldonSheldon · October 10, 2015

    This is a great topic for discussion!

    I do think you’re not describing the benefits that residency requirements have on pushing government to be equitable and forward-thinking. Rather than focusing on the struggle of individuals to come into compliance, I’d like to know “why couldn’t the government hire that role from within its current residents?”. I think every outside hire should be viewed as a failure to develop local self-sufficiency.

    You see this failure of local self-sufficiency playing out, for example, in urban housing crises in which teachers cannot afford to live within the urban boundaries. This is not a failing of the teachers, but rather a failing of the government to not provide (either/both) equitable salaries or develop affordable housing.

    For tech workers, I fear that relaxing residency requirements looks like carpet-baggery: reinforcing tech as privileged outsiders and agents of an extractive economy. Would it be a bridge to develop a local base up which residency requirements could be reinstated, or is a beach-head to relaxing the requirement for other (privileged) positions?

  2. mheadd · October 10, 2015

    Ben – great thoughts, and you’re right: I am mostly telling one side of the story here.

    I do think, though, that developing local self-sufficiency (particularly in technology) is a very different proposition for small & midsized cities than it is for places like NYC, Chicago or SF.

    Even cities like Philly have challenges – some great technologists & designers with an interest in public service that live in the suburbs. How can the city leverage their talents more effectively?

    An issue worth more discussion I think.

    Thanks for the feedback!

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