The Residency Requirement Scourge

People with a conservative political outlook tend to like to complain about the low quality of municipal workers. I think this is an exaggeration and  an unfair stereotype, but if people want higher quality public employees, one policy they need to have in their crosshairs is residency requirements.

Arbitrarily restricting your labor market to a small geographic area is the best way I can think of to ensure that a labor market will be uncompetitive, and turn up job candidates of mediocre quality. Everybody likes to think that all the best people live right here in this town, and that’s a cute feel-good idea, but obviously if you expand your labor market to the entire United States, odds are you can attract a wider range of quality candidates, and the candidate who’s truly best will emerge from a more competitive process. Local government isn’t a local jobs program. The purpose is to deliver high quality public services, and to do that you need the highest quality workers.

Bernie O’Hare is exactly right about this:

Northampton County row officers are ministerial. They are not decision-makers. In the Recorder of Deeds Office, for example, I can record a ham sandwich as long as it is acknowledged, properly notarized and has a tax ID number. These clerks would have to take it because they have no discretion. It doesn’t matter whether they live in Easton or Emmaus.

So what public policy is served by requiring them to reside inside the County? You could argue that a person who lives here is more invested in his community and cares more. But couldn’t that be said of all County workers? And in my experience, it’s just not true. A strong work ethic and dedication to duty has very little to do with where someone lives. An Allentown or Phillipsburg resident might very well be a much harder worker than someone who lives just two blocks away from the courthouse.

What this proposal really does is penalize anyone who wants to be a department head. At least thirty per cent of the county workforce lives in New Jersey. This legislation tells them they can never aspire for more than a minor promotion. It also making their lives harder. It reduces their opportunities to find affordable housing, or to be close to family members who help with child-rearing and other intangibles.

If also flies in the face of regionalism. If we are really interested in promoting the Lehigh Valley, a residency requirement should include Lehigh, Warren and Monroe County.

Finally, it reduces the pool of available employees, making it more difficult to find good and qualified people.


  1. Actually people of all political persuasions, when asked privately, will admit the staggering level of mediocrity or worse that exists with government employees.

    Problem is Democrats can’t be honest about it because they have to whore themselves out to the public employee unions to keep the contributions rolling in.

    Government is the textbook example for doing less with more. Example – what’s the incentive for a bureaucrat? To make his budget larger, not to be more efficient. That’s how he measures his worth.

    We need to first prohibit public employee unions from playing any role in the political process (you’ll feel so much better Jon when you don’t have to be a whore), and then turn the entire employment model upside down so that the taxpayer’s interests are put first.

  2. Except for emergency services personnel I support it, have for years.

    And how a bureaucrat values himself is not stock boilerplate it’s Management 101. First step in learning how to manage people is you need to figure out what motivates them and use it to the company’s and their advantage. When that motivation point is contrary to the interests of the company (as is the case when budget size trumps efficiency) one of two things needs to happen – either the employee changes, or the employee goes.

    That doesn’t happen in the public sector which is just one of the many reasons it’s so damn inefficient.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I agree that public sector institutional design can give workers bad incentives, but organizations can always be made better. I just don’t like the fatalism, or the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with the people, when the problem is more about the institutions.

      • Government jobs attract people without much ambition or drive. I’m sorry but that’s the truth.

        Why? For one, there’s no significant potential financial upside or opportunity for advancement. You’ll get slightly overpaid, and you’ll have gold-plated retirement benefits guaranteed by the taxpayer, but you’ll never be a heavy financial hitter, never independently wealthy.

        The compensation structure that’s in place now also has eliminated the “civil servant” bullshit. Working for the government now provides compensation in excess of similar private sector positions.

        So when your organization is designed to attract unmotivated people, you get unmotivated people and they do a lousy job.

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