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Where are Government’s Great Places to Work?

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

By Howard Risher
January 19, 2018

The train has left the station. In every other sector there is a focus on the policies and practices which make organizations “great places to work.” Government’s workforce problems—the aging workforce combined with the difficulty recruiting and retaining young workers—are possibly worse than in other sectors. But, for reasons that are not clear, government agencies have been hesitant to commit to the workforce management changes which would make them more competitive and alleviate the staffing problems.

The reason this is important is simple — the “Great Places to Work” companies perform significantly better. For the publicly traded companies on the list, their stock has increased 722 percent since 1998, three times the increase for the Russell 3000 Index (a benchmark for the U.S. stock market). The “great places” also attract highly qualified workers; workers want to work for the best. Their employees are “13 times more likely to express a commitment to stay with their employer for a long time.”

The identification of “great places to work” started over 30 years ago. Today the organization, Great Place to Work® Institute, produces the annual Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® list and over a dozen other Best Workplaces lists for millennials, women, diversity, small and medium companies, as well as for many different industries. They produce similar lists in over 40 countries.

In addition, there are lists of the best places to work in healthcare and higher education, and in virtually every major city. Industry associations or local periodicals produce many of them.

The approach used by the Chronical of Higher Education is typical of how the best employers are selected. They survey colleges which apply using two questionnaires: one covers institutional characteristics, demographic data and workplace policies, and a second asking a sample of faculty and staff how they evaluate their employer and its practices.

The research shows becoming a ‘great employer’ is not dependent on high pay, valuable perquisites or generous benefits. A few do, of course. Google is first on the 2017 “Great Places” list. However, the second company is Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain. One of their stores, where I shop regularly, is located in an extremely crowded retail area, King of Prussia, PA which has over 100 stores, restaurants and similar low pay employers within a mile – but Wegmans appears to have no trouble recruiting the most customer-friendly employees of any supermarket in the region.

Federal Best Places

At the Federal level, Deloitte works with the Partnership for Public Service to develop a ‘best places’ ranking of federal agencies using selected questions from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

Significantly, the federal survey includes 28 questions that are also used in engagement surveys conducted by Mercer l Sirota. On all but two questions, the federal scores are lower by an average of 11 percent than the private sector scores. Federal employees are ready when needed “to put in the extra effort to get a job done” (95 percent vs. 83 percent) and more satisfied with their pay (57 percent vs. 55 percent). In contrast, the private sector scores are significantly higher on training, effective use of talent, performance management and recognition and rewards.

The difference in responses to one core question—“I have trust and confidence in my supervisor.” —should be a concern for all government leaders: The private sector score is 15 percent higher. Research shows employees experience a great workplace when they trust the people they work for. That’s central to The Great Place to Work® Trust Model©. It’s used to assess employee experience around the globe.

It’s likely the differences in the responses to those questions help to explain why federal agencies have not been successful recruiting and retaining young employees. The differences also explain why federal agencies find it difficult to raise performance levels.

State and Local Government Best Places

How would state and local government workers respond to the same questions? Which public employers would score high? Which are the best places to work? How do public employers compare with private employers? With tight labor markets the comparisons are central to improving government’s brand as an employer and addressing the staffing problems.

More important than the answers to survey questions are the policies and practices important to effective talent management.

Public employers start with an advantage: research shows an employer’s purpose is vital to creating a successful organization. It contributes to a shared commitment and attracts workers who see the purpose as important. That’s obvious in healthcare. It also explains why NASA is ranked as the best federal employer. And of course research shows Public Service Motivation (PSM) is a compelling reason for many who work in government.

But it is clear government needs to develop new strategies to attract and retain talent. In the ‘great places’ research certain words stand out: respect, fairness, feedback, appreciation and trust. “Empowerment” is missing only because it’s now the norm in business. Wegmans shows salary level is not the answer. Tight budgets cannot be an excuse; the problem only makes it that much more important to change workforce management practices.

A simple step would be to create a “best places to work in state and local government.” The Chronicle two-phase survey is simple and SurveyMonkey would make it inexpensive. That would help to identify and understand the issues that contribute to an attractive, motivating work experience.

The staffing problem only has one true solution — that is to change the work experience to make it more satisfying. Everyone wins. The workforce is more productive, and agencies find it is easier to recruit and retain talent. Identifying the “best places to work” gives those jurisdictions recognition and also highlights the practices which make them an attractive employer.


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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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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