Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Public servants from coast to coast share their advice on how to successfully hire and retain government talent.
Over the past two months, I’ve traveled coast to coast speaking about the public sector workforce crisis, from Boston, New York City and Savannah, Georgia, to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri; Salt Lake City; Anaheim, California; and Portland, Oregon.
My audiences included public servants in all levels of government and a variety of organizations and occupations who are on the front lines in the struggle to attract and retain talent. At each stop, I try to deliver actionable information, but I also try to learn from attendees what their issues and solutions are.
Here are some the key takeaways from my recent travels:
The government workforce crisis is nationwide, in all levels of government and most occupations.
In the past, I would kick off each session by asking for a show of hands on who is struggling to attract and retain talent. I no longer do this because almost everyone now raises their hand.
I try to disabuse attendees of the notion that there is a quick, easy, one-size-fits-all way to magically become an employer of choice. It takes hard work to create a culture that makes an organization a great place to work.
Being an employer of choice is not solely HR’s job.
Human resources need to have the proverbial seat at the decision-making table, but there is increasing realization by government leaders and non-HR folks that they also have key roles in attracting and retaining talent. I always get head nodding and even applause when I say, “Talent is everyone’s job.”
Government needs to do a better job recruiting and hiring.
No surprise here. A former boss of mine likes to describe the government hiring process as “a target-rich environment.”
I hear the usual complaints that it takes too long to hire in government. But I also see nods when I say, “Government needs an extreme branding makeover.”
According to research from the UKG Great Place to Work Institute (based on 100 million employee survey responses), purpose drives retention. As I argue, government organizations should brand themselves as employers that offer work with purpose.
Some government agencies are already seeing success doing just that. They are recruiting and hiring by using social media more broadly and effectively; writing job ads that highlight the opportunity to perform rewarding work (i.e., ads that don’t just repeat position descriptions); offering referral and hiring bonuses; and producing recruiting materials such as videos about how their employees are making a difference. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency recruits with a compelling video entitled, “Changing Lives.”
Government organizations are also streamlining hiring. Nevada County, California, for example, cut hiring time from 130 to 50 days by reengineering their processes “without compromising merit principles.”
Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging continue to be priorities.
As I emphasize in my remarks to audiences, the nation is undergoing unprecedented demographic changes. For the first time since the initial U.S. Census (conducted in 1790, a trivia question I ask that almost no one ever gets right), the number of white Americans in the nation’s population decreased in 2020.
Government has a particular responsibility to look like the people it serves. Most public sector organizations understand that focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, or DEI&B, is not just the right thing to do, but it is also a business imperative. For example, research shows that diverse leadership groups make better decisions.
However, I also learned that DEI&B faces political headwinds in some jurisdictions, as this national conversation also plays out in government. Several officials told me that they are personally committed to diversity and equity, but it’s a tough sell in their political environments. I admire their grit and commitment to overcome this resistance and create diverse and equitable workplaces.
Employees want flexibility.
Time and again, I heard that government must provide employees with workplace flexibility, even for those who can’t work remotely.
For those who can, let them work remotely even if in a hybrid arrangement. Managers told me they are losing talented people, including in fields like IT, not because of pay but because of return-to-office policies. Several managers admitted they are continuing to allow these employees to work remotely, in defiance of such rules, because that’s the only way to keep them.
For positions where remote work is not possible, there are ways to be flexible. Approaches include offering a 4/10 workweek—10 hours a day, 4 days a week—offering flexible starting and ending times, giving employees more time off, allowing them to self-schedule (especially in 24/7 operations), and even letting these employees work remotely from time to time to catch up on administrative or other tasks they can do from anywhere.
It’s about data.
Organizations, including in government, can’t just guess about what it takes to create a culture that attracts and retains talent. Data and metrics will enable organizations to understand if they are attracting and retaining the right talent. Use data, for example, to understand:
- Who’s applying for jobs and who is dropping out due to delays and user-unfriendly processes.
- Which employees are staying, and which are leaving—don’t just look at the overall turnover rate.
- Whether diversity exists up and down the organization.
- If there is pay equity across gender and racial/ethnic groups.
- Whether excessive overtime by certain employees is causing pay inequities and creating risk for the organization and the people it serves.
These are questions that must be answered with data.
More broadly, organizations need to collect data about how their employees feel about the workplace, and how the organization can create the most positive experience. UKG, where I am a senior fellow, certifies organizations through its Great Place to Work Institute in 60 countries based on an employee survey. In my travels, I’m encouraged to hear that many public sector organizations are collecting employee feedback through surveys— and then acting on the data to create great workplaces.
As I continue to speak and learn about public sector talent challenges—and solutions—these conversations reinforce my belief that the biggest challenge facing government is attracting, developing, engaging and retaining talent. The people I speak to and with are committed to meeting this critical challenge. The stakes for our nation are too high for them to fail.
Bob Lavigna is an award-winning public sector HR leader and innovator with more than 30 years of experience leading government organizations and programs. Currently, he is the senior fellow, public sector for UKG.