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Identifying Best Practices in Workforce Management

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

By Howard Risher
December 13, 2016

An internet search confirms researchers have worked to document best practices in government financial management, in the use of technology and in procurement practices. There have been similar efforts to identify best practices for evaluating public policy programs like those in public safety, emergency management and corrections. In other sectors, there are websites advocating best practices in everything from “effective presentation handouts” to “improving hospital profitability” to “email marketing.”

But aside from consultants promoting employee engagement studies, there has been virtually no interest in identifying the practices that are most effective in managing government’s workforce. In virtually every other sector each year the “best places to work” are identified along with the practices that explain the reasons an organization was selected.


At the same time, independent surveys have highlighted workforce problems as the No. 1 management challenge.

The workforce is impacted by two broad areas of practice: HR policies and practices are the most obvious, but research shows the second—“people management” (the practices of managers in staff supervision)—is significantly more important. Perhaps surprisingly, books on high performance are generally silent on HR policies and they are also ignored in Gallup’s engagement survey.

There are at least two reasons for exploring best practices. First, the frequent media reports on best practices in other sectors emphasize the link to improved performance. Since everything accomplished by government is attributable to employees at some level, one would expect greater attention to workforce issues. The second reason is the need to compete for talent. The years since the recession have badly damaged the ‘brand’ of government as an employer. Adopting best practices should help public employers compete with the better private employers.

The studies should be far easier and relevant than in other sectors. The similarities in agencies across states, counties, school systems, etc. should make assessments of comparative experience, using common metrics, very useful. In business, time-based comparisons—month to month, week to week etc.—along with comparative financial and productivity metrics are universally used.

Here the focus would be on data comparing the impact of specific practices, assessing the link between the prevalence of a practice and a measure of performance. Simply stated, the purpose is to learn what works and what doesn’t work. The analyses would be straightforward for anyone with statistical training.

For example, a prominent HR practice is recruiting. It would be useful to assess the “productivity” of recruiting sources (e.g., job boards, LinkedIn, association websites, Facebook and staffing firms) in terms of the number of applicants but also the quality and costs to sort through applicants. Comparing those sources with the experience posting vacancy announcements on a government website like USAJobs could be eye opening. (That does not ignore potential bias and discrimination, but analytic tools can monitor the hiring record.)

The people management practices are largely behavioral, including the interactions between supervisors and their people. The studies include both those that narrowly assess how a supervisor’s behavior influences performance (e.g., the Gallup engagement survey) and those that focus more broadly on the practices that define the work environment. The latter would include, for example, the communications related to employee achievements and the emphasis on work-life balance.

The importance of a subset of 15 people management practices has been proven in studies of employers in business, health care and education. (http://worldmanagementsurvey.org) More than 100 researchers have now collected data in 40 countries. The analyses show, for example, that organizations perform better when managers meet with staff regularly to review progress, identify problems and modify plans. Another practice—the use of stretch goals—was found to be highly correlated with better performance. All of the 15 practices involve people management.

Unfortunately, the barriers to adopting best practices are real. One obvious hurdle is the need to change civil service laws and regulations to support staffing flexibility. There is also a common resistance to change that, in the public sector, is often heightened by employee distrust of leaders. Unions add to the resistance. Additionally, workforce practices have few internal champions who have the influence to build a consensus for change. Another potential barrier is a failure of leaders to fully appreciate the potential payoff from investments in better management.

Looking back, the potential cost savings from a more productive workforce make it surprising that the issue has been largely ignored. Payroll is a significant budget item in every agency. At the federal level, the civilian payroll is roughly $330 billion, plus almost $100 billion for former employees. That, of course, is only a portion of controllable expenditures. An estimate from a Gallup report is that state and local spending is approaching $4 trillion. Their estimate is that the failure to fully engage the workforce is costing “up to $100 billion—more than the entire spending budgets of most U.S. states.”

However, it would be a mistake to focus narrowly on costs. The metrics should include relevant measures of quality, customer satisfaction, turnover of high performers, etc. Focusing on metrics associated with an organization’s success reinforces the importance of best practices.

The hurdles are high and the track record is not good but it is increasingly clear that public employers need to develop new workforce management strategies. The performance gains from adopting “best practices” can be expected to generate savings that offset any added costs. There is a good reason why the concept of “best places to work” has gained prominence in other sectors.

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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3 Responses to Identifying Best Practices in Workforce Management

  1. Bill Brantley Reply

    December 13, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Excellent article! I also enjoyed your book. You raise some provocative points which should be addressed in the next administration. You might be interested in the work of the HR Open Source movement (http://hros.co/#what-is-hros). The HROS has yet to fully address government workforce issues but, there are some interesting case studies and ideas.

    • Howard Risher Reply

      December 24, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      Bill, if you have a minute I have a question related to your time at USDA.


  2. Larry Keeton Reply

    December 13, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Great article. The question I wonder is do elected officials at all levels of government really care if the workforce is engaged or not?
    Consider, a poor performing bureaucracy is campaign fodder on what’s wrong with government. Where elected officials are responsible to put into place policies and programs that improve government bureaucracy, as Kettl writes in his book Escaping Jurassic Government, they do not. Instead, they shift blame, and much of it is probably justified, on the bureaucratic leaders for failing to deliver.
    As a county bureaucrat who used engagement surveys and performance metrics, I know the value of such systems. Engaged staff deliver better products, better services, and citizen appreciation goes up as their hostility goes down. This agency was a regulatory one that shifted from an attitude of saying “No” to “Getting them to yes within the scope of the code.” It worked. The agency became touted as a model to follow by the State Auditor responsible for monitoring Government Performance.
    Interestingly, with the exception of one, the local elected officials didn’t get it, couldn’t be bothered by it, or weren’t interested in demanding other departments under their jurisdiction embrace the methodology. They talked about it, but never held others accountable to achieve similar results.
    Bottom line, unless our elected officials get on board, demand better performance, and provide the necessary resources, our government bureaucracy will be victim to those less interested and not willing to rock the boat. This is at all levels of the government.
    We now face a new administration at the federal level. The President-elect is hiring successful business people to lead agencies. I wonder how many of these business leaders used engagement surveys; used best management practices in training subordinate leaders and supervisors; and, turned their organization around, or at least course corrected it, when it was necessary? I also wonder how many of their managers were engaged given Gallup’s poll a couple of years ago said only 35% of managers in business were considered engaged.
    Again, great article.

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