Deep dive on the “cert-referral” process (aka how the City matches candidates to positions)

Improve hiring for San Francisco
4 min readJun 24, 2019

The “certification” (or “cert”) and “referral” processes are very unique to government hiring and a key component of what the City and County of San Francisco hopes to automate in the future. We know that to understand the intricacies of this process takes time and experience. Although we have documented the processes in detail in our RFP (Section 11. Background on Unique Government Hiring Processes), we thought it might also be helpful to explain this with some drawings.

First, let’s start with some terms:

Now let’s say two departments got approval for some clerk positions at the beginning of the fiscal year. Six months into the year, they now need to make hires to fill some of those positions:

Meanwhile a group of candidates have gone through a hiring process (Yes! CCSF will often kick off hiring processes — namely by carrying out exams — before knowing all the positions they will need to fill from that candidate pool):

Those candidates get placed on an eligible list (a list of candidates who met a certain threshold during the examination process and who are ranked based on their performance):

Now that we have some vacant positions and some eligible candidates (in rank order) we can tie the positions to the eligible list:

With those two pieces together, we can apply the cert rule to determine which candidates are reachable/alternates. Let’s say in this case, the rule is a rule of 5. The formula is (# of positions + cert rule) -1.

( 3 + 5 ) -1= 7

Reachable candidates are sent to Departments A and B to consider, while alternates are not. Here’s the tricky part: over time the line separating reachables and alternates might shift as candidates opt out of further opportunities at CCSF, positions get removed, or positions get added.

Additionally, it is possible for there to be multiple candidates in the same rank if they obtained the same score on the exam:

Here’s an example of when that line would move:

Let’s say a position suddenly is no longer vacant. There could be various reasons for this; for example due to budgetary constraints the position is removed. So now we only have two vacant positions:

Our certification rule formula becomes: (2 + 5) -1 = 6

Now let’s say two candidates are no longer interested in working at the City and County of San Francisco. Because these candidates were the only individuals in their rank (no one else received the same exam score as them), the following two ranks are made available so that departments still have the appropriate number of ranks to consider:

Changes like these can occur every day — often times multiple times a day for lists that contain up to 1,000 candidates with numerous vacant positions across multiple departments. With so many moving pieces, we are confident that a solution where we can see a real-time snapshot of positions/candidates will allow us to more effectively and efficiently hire.

The City and County of San Francisco is currently looking for vendors to partner with to improve the government hiring process and, over time, automate parts of the hiring process. To learn more visit the Hiring Modernization Project site:



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