Connecting state and local government leaders
It’s impossible to perfectly predict what state and local public sector employment will look like a decade from now. But some clear signs are emerging.
This article is the third in a three-part series about the future of the state and local government workforce. You can find the second article in the series here.
Can anyone confidently predict the exact nature of the public sector workforce in the coming years? No. That would require forecasting many un-forecastable variables, including the future capacity of technology, demographic shifts in the population as a whole and the emerging services governments will have to provide.
The one sure thing is this: No field will be the same in ten years as it is today. “I can’t think of one that’s not going to change,” says Jennifer Fairweather, director of human resources in Jefferson County, Colorado and president of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources.
But even if crystal balls are cloudy or cracked, some shapes of the future are beginning to emerge and we’ve been able to identify a few.
New Roles in Finance, Technology and Administration
With advances in automation, jobs at the entry level and one step up in finance are already becoming less focused on data entry and transactional processing and more focused on analysis and compliance.
At the upper echelon of finance shops, roles are changing as well. Local governments are increasingly looking to finance officials as organizational leaders, not as functionaries whose work lives are gritty with numbers.
Recently, the Government Finance Officers Association asked its community of finance officers about the most important leadership skills for people who hold those positions. The answer: To work collaboratively, build teams, and communicate skillfully. “It was less about technical knowledge of accounting, or budgeting or treasury,” says Mike Mucha, GFOA’s deputy executive director.
He notes that the GFOA has recently put an emphasis on combining leadership training with core finance skills and has developed a leadership framework focused on collaboration. Resources are designed to help provide strategies to improve communication skills, use tools for bridging polarized environments, and for applying concepts of behavioral science to help with budgetary decision-making.
The same themes arise in information technology departments. “There’s been a shift to the CIO as business leader,” says Doug Robinson, the long-time executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, which publishes a survey of its members annually.
In October 2022, when NASCIO released its latest annual survey of members, the top three characteristics that chief information officers identified as critical for their success were strategist, communicator, and relationship manager, while “technologist” was listed ninth.
Within other administrative fields, like HR, insurance, regulatory bodies and licensing, states and localities are also experiencing a broadening of roles, a reduction of silos, an emphasis on customer service and relationship building, and a move away from routine jobs. “The technology does that for you now,” says Casey Osterkamp, director of the division of personnel in Missouri. “Instead of being transactional, the team members have to be problem solving, thinking, implementing and working to be business partners.”
On the Frontlines
Some observers have argued that the jobs that are least likely to change are the ones that cannot be done in an office setting, including many police and firefighting positions.
But that’s overly simplistic. The evolving role of the people who work for police departments has been well documented. For example, according to an August report by The Marshall Project, “at the local level many departments are experimenting with new approaches like alternative response programs that send unarmed counselors or social workers to certain calls.”
Similarly, significant shifts are taking place in fire departments. The kinds of people who are inclined to become firefighters are inevitably going to change as the nature of the jobs they do evolves. “While the estimated number of fires has been cut almost in half, there were nearly five times as many medical aid or rescue responses in 2020 as in 1980,” according to the US Fire Department Profile 2020, which was published by the National Fire Protection Association in September.
What’s more, many “firefighting jobs have become more administrative in their focus, with a deepening of technical and engineering expertise,” says Anita McGahan, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. This means that those people who might have once entered fire departments to be heroic life-savers may be disappointed by the reality of the jobs. “The intrinsic motivation of firefighters to save lives can be depleted,” says McGahan.
Broadening the Base
The shortage of a diverse pool of qualified --- and interested – workers had become a headache in a wide variety of public sector fields at least five years before the pandemic. This has led to a shift in many jobs away from full-time government employees to contractors, part-time workers and partnerships with the private sector.
Equally important is the transformation of many jobs from specialists, who function as cogs in a giant service-delivery machine to people who can shift from function to function, providing more flexibility for their supervisors, and potentially a more efficient workforce.
In the property appraisal office in Johnson County, Kansas, for example, chief property appraiser Beau Boisvert recently reorganized his office to replace specialized property appraisal roles with generalists, who have access to training and an ability to move up in the organization in a defined career ladder as they learn now to deal with different kinds of property.
This so-far uncommon approach, which Boisvert saw function well in Maricopa County, Arizona where he used to work, reverses the trend, starting in the late 20th century, for more specialized roles in the property appraisal field. A high level of specialization is no longer practical, Boisvert says.
How did his staff react to the change? A few specialists who liked dealing exclusively with commercial or office property left because they didn’t want to be generalists. But the majority adjusted to the reorganization, which also includes a regional approach. Now the probation department in Johnson County has been exploring a similar system because they think it might work for them, as well.
The advantages: Boisvert can more easily shift employees to deal with sick leave or turnover and employees no longer must wait for a promotion until a position opens up but can move up to a higher position and salary after they are trained and qualify to rise from an Appraiser 1 to an Appraiser 2 or, then, to an Appraiser 3 – a major selling point given employees’ desire for career development and the public sector’s difficulty in competing on pay.
Customer Service in a Remote World
The use of automation to provide services is still in its infancy, but advances are coming quickly and the signs of change are hard to miss.
“When we needed to go to remote work, it really incentivized the Department of Motor Vehicles to come up with applications and ways to automate the DMV functions,” says Madilyn Zike, chief human resources officer in Oregon. “You can go online now and renew your registration. You can renew all kinds of things that you’d have to go into the DMV office before.”
She doesn’t expect those changes to reduce jobs, but to improve service to customers. When automation frees public employees to focus more on communication and service delivery, “I just think people are able to get things (done) more efficiently and certainly more quickly than they have in the past,” she says.
Melody DeBussey, deputy commissioner of the Office of Family Independence at the Georgia Department of Human Services has had a similar reaction. “We hope that if we discharge some of the manual and data entry elements of our jobs, that the case management and human service component will increase,” she says.
Consider a pilot study involving the federal Food and Nutrition Service in which Georgia and several other states have been introducing “robotic process automation” in their human services departments.
Georgia’s pilot began in October 2020, with the department now using multiple “bots” that run non-stop to churn through forms, find conflicting information and cut down on caseworker data entry pertaining to eligibility questions. These bots gather information far more quickly than employees can, focusing workers on complex questions that need more exploration and complex explanations.
There might have been a hazard at handing the design of this technology to people who understand software and hardware but not people. But the plan for Georgia’s robotic process automation, which is now also used for Medicaid and other human service programs, was designed by a caseworker team which then worked with the technology department to code and deploy it.
“The team that manages this technology is all caseworkers,” says DeBussey. “It’s not the technology team telling caseworkers how to run their business. It’s caseworkers telling the technology team how to serve caseworkers to help them serve the public.”