Connecting state and local government leaders
But it may not be smooth for everyone in the state and local workforce. “Major disruptors are converging at a pace that we haven’t had happen, at least in my lifetime,” notes one expert.
The fact that many government jobs are on the verge of changing significantly means that public sector employers are facing years in which new workforce challenges are likely to pop up at every corner. As former President William McKinley said, “The path of progress is seldom smooth. New things are often found hard to do.”
Clearly, the ease with which governments adapt to the inevitable pressure of a workforce in transition will vary tremendously, and along the way there will be both positive and negative ramifications for employees, services and already fragile public trust. “Major disruptors are converging at a pace that we haven’t had happen, at least in my lifetime,” says Ron Holifield, a former Texas city manager, chief executive officer of Strategic Government Resources and interim director of the newly revamped Alliance for Innovation.
Two years ago, Holifield hired three full-time futurists for his staff and had them do the kind of preparation that might be more typical of emergency managers planning for an oncoming hurricane. This kind of effort, more commonly used in the private sector, mapped out four portraits of the government workforce future, ranging from a positive look at a “transformative future”, which presents “a new and ideal way of doing things,” to, at the other end of the spectrum, a “collapse future,” where workers are unhappy, unemployment rates are high and unresolved issues promote poor working conditions and potentially diminished service.
It seems likely the reality of the future will fall someplace along that spectrum. But keeping the challenges in mind is one essential element for success.
Impediments to Progress
Unfortunately, adequately preparing for change is beyond the reach of many states and localities right now. Problems hiring and retaining employees mean that many governments are short on staff, with managers and department heads exhausted and stressed from two and a half years of pandemic and political disruption. Multiple human resource officials complain that they simply have not had time to engage in the kind of workforce planning that will help prepare them for the future or to modernize cumbersome classification systems or adjust pay that is out of line with both public and private sector compensation.
One of the main reasons for the speedier-than-ever evolution of state and local government workforces is newly developed technology. This is thanks to the potential tech has to improve services and reduce costs through automation, artificial intelligence and other technical advances. But the impact of technology can be jarring, particularly when it involves a shift away from longstanding systems to which employees have grown accustomed.
Though technology is a major element with the potential to disorient current government employees, it’s only one of many. For one thing, fear of any substantial change can stand in the way of its successful implementation. When Grace Hanne left her private sector healthcare job three years ago to become the innovation principal analyst in Johnson County, Kansas, she says she “underestimated how dense the fear factor is here and elsewhere.”
That concern is understandable. The drive toward self-preservation can inhibit a willingness to change. Says Darin Seeley, commissioner of the Bureau of Human Resources in South Dakota, “There’s emotion tied up in our titles and our work. If your title is XYZ and you’ve been in XYZ for 15 years and someone from human resources comes in and tells you that this is going to change, there’s a personal aspect to that.”
Other roadblocks stand in the way of hiring and compensation reforms that experts perceive as critical to the kinds of positions needed in the future. Barriers exist due to administrative rules, government culture, taxpayer anger over pay seen as too high, or statutes that limit state or local executive or managerial decisions.
Minnesota local governments, for example, have waged a so-far unsuccessful battle to repeal an unusual statute that limits local salaries to 110% of what the governor receives. While waivers are possible, they can be time-consuming with League of Minnesota Cities officials citing problems that the Governor’s salary cap presents in recruiting, establishing pay equity and offering salary hikes for increased responsibilities.
Governments with more rigid civil service systems also face challenges in expanding job descriptions and functions due to narrowly defined job classifications.
“I’m generalizing, but I think civil service and union rules have to back away from a rigid focus that people can only do what’s in their position description,” says Bob Lavigna, who has held multiple leadership roles in the field of public sector human resources over more than 30 years. “These restrictions are well-intentioned and designed to protect employees from being taken advantage of, but that can put folks at a disadvantage if they want to expand their skills. I think government will have to be a little more flexible.”
Preparing for the Future
Cities, counties and states are going to have to be “nimble and dynamic,” if they have a chance of smoothly functioning as the nature of their workforce changes, says Angela Crawford, chief human resources officer in Wake County, North Carolina. She adds, “I don’t think we can take a one-size fits all approach and I don’t think you can develop one or two things and hope that gets you where you need to be.”
One important approach moves department employees away from transactional tasks, with the goal of creating “a more thinking workforce,” says Jack Pellegrino, director of purchasing and contracting for the county of San Diego. Collaboration and cross-functional teams help to eliminate department silos. Whether governments are working with each other, stakeholder groups, or more directly with the private sector, staff need to be focused on building sustainable relationships and partnerships, he says.
In Pellegrino’s 74-person department, he looks less for specific educational credentials, seeking employees who have aptitude and a willingness to continually learn, as well as a positive-service oriented attitude, and the ability to adapt to address new situations. When recruiting and promoting staff, he looks for candidates that have broad business and operational experience, which may not be limited to a governmental setting. Exclusive government experience “can actually be a negative for me because often experiences are narrowly focused and task-oriented,” he says. “We’re looking for staff that can think broadly and draw from wide collaboration to solve today’s challenges in the best manner possible.”
Getting the right people in the door calls for wider outreach to expand the pool of job candidates and increase diversity. It means a revision of job descriptions and a focus on more mission-oriented and flexible roles with less narrow and specific job requirements.
A reduction in minimum requirements for jobs puts more weight on governments to train on needed skills. “We’ll hire a Building Inspector One, which is basically someone with good customer service skills and we’ll train them for a year until they’ve got their certificates and can become a Building Inspector Two, which is the normal building inspector position,” says Robert Neiuber, human resources director in the city of Rancho Cucamonga, California.
In fact, if there was one standout message that we heard in the months over which we researched this series, it was the importance of investing in training. “Shame on us if we don’t start upskilling quickly,” says Seeley, the South Dakota HR official.
In addition, says Neiuber “we need to make sure that we keep up with continuous learning for the employees, so they are ready for the evolution of their job as it changes because of technology. A lot of what we’re looking at now is developing our current employees to get them ready for jobs as they change.”