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Averting a Crisis: Making Government Service Attractive Again

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher
April 20, 2018

The interest in public service careers appears to have faded. In a recent survey by Route Fifty, human capital and workforce issues were the number one problem. Annual surveys by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence have found recruiting and retaining staff is the most frequently cited problem.

In columns like this the focus is frequently on the technical fields where government competes for talent with the private sector. However, there are reports of increasing staff shortages for police, prison workers, nurses and teachers.

Each jurisdiction, of course, has somewhat different circumstances, but for some the vacancies are or will soon trigger a crisis in providing services to their communities. To borrow a phrase from the new Director of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Jeff Pon, “nothing gets done without the people.”

Taken together the numbers—population trends, workforce demographics, graduates in fields relevant to government, unusually tight labor markets, competitive pay levels—show government’s staffing problems will get progressively worse for the next several years. In the high demand STEM fields, the staffing problems are not limited to public agencies. For 2018, the projection is employers, public and private, “will be unable to fill nearly 2.5 million job openings…” (Congressman Lamar Smith, Chair, Committee of Science, Space and Technology, December 2017)

It’s not simply the numbers, however. Government’s “brand” as an employer has not recovered from the workforce actions prompted by the recession. In a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, only 3.2 percent of graduating seniors plan to work in state or local government while 1.8 percent plan on a job at the federal level. The report shows the percentages had declined steadily for several years. Readers can decide if the percentages would be higher today.

In fields (including but not limited to STEM job families) where technical expertise is essential to job performance, there is an added problem – the inevitable obsolescence of knowledge unless an individual is committed to staying abreast of developments in their field.

The first thought is to attribute the staffing problem to the personnel actions in the years after the 2008/9 recession. The layoffs and freezes have not been forgotten. However, there is a broader problem: government’s management practices, the common reliance on top down, hierarchical control, the inflexibility of civil service systems, the importance of seniority, etc. all come together to make the work experience in government unattractive to younger workers entering the labor force.

OPM’s Pon suggested a simple strategy that could be carried out in part at virtually no cost. In a recent video he, along with his Deputy, Michael Rigas, promised civil service reform to “make employment in government more attractive and flexible.” The stories of the “best places to work” in other sectors provide numerous ideas that could be adopted in government.

His focus is on the right track (although he offered no specifics) – antiquated civil service systems are in part responsible for the problem. Older systems make it very difficult to pay high demand jobs competitively, are bureaucratic and costly to administer, rigid and contribute to a culture of entitlement. They reflect a very different era in work management. Of course, a growing number of states have already scrapped outdated systems. (It would be instructive to compare the staffing problems in states that moved away from the traditional civil service framework.)

His reference to flexibility is on point. A common thread in the general model for civil service systems is their inflexibility. Government can no longer afford to treat all employees and occupations the same. An obvious point is that labor markets and occupational differences in supply and demand necessitate flexibility in managing pay. To hire and retain qualified employees in high demand fields, employers need to provide attractive opportunities.

In Pon’s comments he committed to coming “up with different types of personnel systems for occupations.” Separate systems for law enforcement and teachers have been used for roughly a century. However, the common model for government salary systems is based on ‘internal equity’ which effectively precludes the flexibility needed to develop policies and practices specific to an occupation. Pon’s idea will be fiercely resisted by the unions but it is the only practical answer to compete for talent in the knowledge occupations.

In the video Deputy Director Rigas stated government needs to be “more competitive with all the options that are available out there.” That presumably includes pay but at least my sense is that it extends to all the practices that would be encompassed in the work management paradigm. Unfortunately those older civil service systems have contributed to cultures where practices in other sectors are virtually ignored.

This is not to suggest government should try to emulate the work environment in a Google or Apple. However, it is past time for government to reconsider the way work is organized and managed. In the private sector the 1990 recession forced companies to cut costs and introduce practices to make them more responsive to their product/service markets. That was followed in the 1990s by the emergence of new knowledge jobs, most recently in cybersecurity. In combination the changes started a revolution in workforce management.

The goal with knowledge jobs is to make full use of an employee’s capabilities. In the new management model employees are empowered to address work-related problems. Many only rarely meet with their “boss.” Increased autonomy is the most prominent break from with the traditional control-oriented approach to supervision.

Research has confirmed that emotionally committed, engaged employees perform at much higher levels. Gallup is of course the most prominent company making this argument. Significantly in Gallup’s Q12 surveys 9 or 10 of the 12 questions focus on supervisor effectiveness. Their role is a key.

The bottom line, so to speak, is that a simple strategy would involve asking employees what changes would improve their work experience. It’s their satisfaction or dissatisfaction that is the key to turnover. They want to be heard. They know better than anyone where productivity can be improved.

They should also be asked for feedback on their supervisor’s effectiveness. That’s “360-degree appraisal” and increasingly common in the private sector.

Public employers must find ways to improve the work experience. Employees want to know their employer values their contribution. All of this can be initiated at virtually no cost. Civil service reform requires legislation and normally a multi-year commitment. Group feedback can trigger immediate improvements.

Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected].

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