It’s Time to Reform the Public Sector Workforce

Public sector employers need to to make major changes to the employee experience.

Public sector employers need to to make major changes to the employee experience. SHUTTERSTOCK


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | The public sector workforce is in the midst of a major transformation brought on by the pandemic, creating a need for public sector employers to redesign the employee experience.

While much of the focus on the economic impact of Covid-19 is on private sector employers, governments are also under the gun. Federal data shows state and local governments have shed 1.3 million jobs since February and recent estimates project they could face budget shortfalls of more than $500 billion over the next two years. In September alone, states and local governments lost about 184,000 jobs. The president of the National Association of Counties recently bemoaned, "while costs are skyrocketing, revenues are plummeting."

Because employee salaries and benefits can account for up to 80% of public-sector budgets, cuts will inevitably continue for the more than 20 million government employees across the country. Along with furloughing and laying off employees, many governments are freezing hiring. One HR director said her county has 300 vacancies, none of which is being filled.

No doubt there’s a tough road ahead for the public sector workforce. But it’s also a potential opportunity to completely reform the government workforce as we know it.

The sudden transition of millions of public servants to working remotely is already creating pressure for changes in how government attracts, develops, engages and retains talent. As government becomes leaner due to cuts, continued success—and retaining workers—will require public sector employers to make major changes to the employee experience. This will mean rethinking how government designs jobs, attracts talent and manages performance, as well as how it conducts succession planning and engages employees.

Redesigning jobs. One lesson from Covid-19 is that we need to re-evaluate how work is performed and how jobs are designed, particularly as remote work becomes the norm, not the exception. That means government employers will need to embrace changes that include:

  • Onboarding remote employees
  • Fully integrating technology
  • Expanding where, when and how employees work
  • Focusing on results instead of time, attendance and activities
  • Emphasizing broad competencies over narrow skills
  • Enabling employees to be innovative
  • Expanding ways to interact with the people government serves
  • Emphasizing team collaboration

Attracting talent. This sea change will have a profound effect on how state and local governments recruit and hire talent. Before Covid-19, government was already facing talent shortages. In a downsized public sector, attracting talent is even more important, especially given the wave of retirements many organizations are already experiencing. To attract top talent, government branding and the employee value proposition need to highlight opportunities to make a difference.

Hiring decisions should be based on skills and competencies (e.g., “training, education and/or experience which provides the required knowledge, skills and abilities”), not activities or experience (e.g., “minimum seven years of experience”).

The new workplace environment may also signal the death knell of cattle-call job fairs and large-scale in-person employment testing. Instead, government must aggressively leverage social media, as well as streamline and automate application and assessment processes.

The good news is that the shift to more remote work can also enable public sector organizations to expand the search for talent and diversity, regardless of where candidates live.

Managing employee performance. According to one state government HR executive, managing and supervising remote employees means ditching the, “If I can’t see you, you’re not working” mentality.

Instead, leaders need to measure and manage goals and results, not just time and attendance. This requires new performance metrics, tools, systems and expectations and, where possible, linking financial rewards to results.

Conducting workforce and succession planning. A smaller and more virtual workforce means it’s important to systematically identify—and meet—future skills and leadership needs. That is what workforce and succession planning are all about. State and local governments often hesitate to do this planning because merit-based promotional requirements and the wide diversity of jobs and skills in their workforces complicate the process.

As state and local governments will be striving for more efficiency in a post-Covid-19 world, hiring managers will need to ask themselves what employee skills (like being adept with technology) will enable government to become nimbler and more efficient? Do government organizations have these skills and, if not, how will they find or develop them? Through workforce planning, organizations can forecast skills needs, assess current skills levels and then fill gaps before they occur.

Succession planning is also critical. The long-predicted retirement “tsunami” has finally reached shore. Not only will this create vacancies but also will lead to a loss of institutional knowledge. Government is experiencing this knowledge drain first because public-sector employees are older, on average, than their private-sector counterparts and can usually retire earlier. Because many retirees are in leadership positions, government must create development strategies to identify and nurture the next generation of leaders.

Boosting employee engagement. Effectively managing a remote workforce means keeping employees engaged even when they may not physically be at their work sites. This is critical because working from home is not a temporary arrangement. For example, our national survey revealed that 85% of state and local government and nonprofit employees who are working remotely for the first time want to do so permanently, at least part-time. As the CIO of the U.S. Department of Defense stated, “The way we work has changed dramatically. There is going to be an enhanced teleworking capability that will be sustained at the end of COVID-19.”

However, employee engagement is already low. At the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, which I direct, our internal research shows that only 35% of government employees are fully engaged. Another survey of government HR leaders we conducted before the full impact of the coronavirus was felt revealed that 96% of respondents identified employee engagement as a key issue.

Our research has also revealed that employee engagement is driven by leadership, employee development, the mission, the work and employee recognition. Addressing these factors with a bifurcated workforce—remote and essential workers—is a new level of challenge.

To respond, leaders need to be visible, use a range of communication strategies, continue to focus on employee development, create a clear line of sight between the job and the mission and find ways to recognize the accomplishments of both essential and remote employees.

According to Jim Goodnight, the co-founder and CEO of SAS, a business software company and a perennial member of Fortune’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For,” “My chief assets drive out the gate every night. My job is to make sure they come back.” In the new workplace, the challenge is to make sure government assets continue to come back, not just physically but also virtually.

Bob Lavigna, author of the book Engaging Government Employees, is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a division of CPS HR Services, an independent government agency.

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