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Taming the Dinosaur in the Room: Embracing New Generations of Public Sector Employees to Achieve Innovation

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

By Tanya Settles
March 15, 2024

Staffing shortages in the public sector leave municipal government leaders scratching their heads and wondering why it is difficult to find, recruit and hire qualified employees with diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Consequently, many long-time staff are doing double duty to cover staffing shortages to ensure minimal service obligations to the community don’t suffer. Yet, we rely on old solutions to solve new problems, and avoid the possibility that there’s a dinosaur in the room. Solving this dilemma requires some ingenuity, innovation and a focus on future needs, not past experiences. While we don’t often think of welcoming new generations of employees to public service alongside technology innovation at the same time, looking at these dimensions in tandem may offer some insight about solutions for two very different, yet related, elements. The first is understanding what new and emerging generations of public sector employees desire and need in terms of sustainable employment and career progression. The second explores ways to make governments more technologically innovative, accessible and forward-thinking. 

New and Emerging Generations in the Public Sector Workforce 

Younger people entering public sector employment, across many disciplines and domains, think about public service and government very differently than previous generations. Those differences include expectations about work, service to communities and structure of work-life balance. As a collective to be reckoned with, Millennials (born between about 1983 and 2000) and Generation Z (born between about 2001 and 2018) are passionate about inclusive and accessible government, racial and gender equity and will leave a public sector job in a minute if they don’t see clear evidence their employer engages in meaningful social justice practices. Together, these two generations are redefining the terms and conditions of employment for municipal governments that focus on achieving work-life balance, a willingness to consider lower financial compensation for greater flexibility in time and work-from-home options. Members of earlier generations, who are often hiring authorities, may undeservingly stereotype them as demanding and entitled.

From a macro-level perspective, Millennial and Generation Z experiences bring a lot of insight and perspective to municipal governance that informs decisionmakers about the future of civic life. These generations have matured in a technologically rich environment where technology wasn’t viewed as something to learn; it was simply something that always existed. As such, accepting technology isn’t a novelty. It is a necessity. Technological adaptation is nearly part of Generation Z’s DNA, and they bring a certain amount of knowledge and experience to integrating emerging technologies into government operations and public policy. In this sense, potential generational preferences for digital communication channels such as social media, mobile apps, and designing digital platforms that draw community members into government decision-making is important. Technology is viewed as a vehicle to adaptive and transparent government.

Government workforces currently have as many as five different generations working in co-existence and among those, emerging generation employees are more open to adopting and adapting to new technologies. They’ve grown up with rapid technological advancements and are well positioned to become the ambassadors of technology for other generations who may be more trepidatious about advanced and innovative technologies. Older generations offer valuable experience and institutional history and knowledge.  Together, the blended perspectives of multiple generations in the workplace are powerful, especially as governments look toward a technologically efficient future that learns from past experiences.

Improving Government Through Technology

Government entities that lean into technology create opportunities to gain efficiency improvements with the potential to alleviate resource deficits and create efficient workflow. Technology also helps identify ways to include community members in important public policy decisions. 

  • Blockchain technologies have the potential to make elections safe, secure and easily auditable, build community trust and improve transparency in government.   
  • Quantum computing brings opportunities for streamlining data processing capabilities and integrating machine learning modules and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) that supports rapid, complex decision making in those situations where time is of the essence. 
  • Digital decision making and biometric authentication can improve community safety and help control identity risk. 
  • Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) can be used to improve training and planning, particularly in dynamic and changing environments such as natural disasters and mass casualty events or create VR spaces where communities and decision makers solve problems together.

When multiple generations come together, it isn’t hard to imagine the advantages of technologically advanced government. To achieve this future, it is important for public sector leaders to think more broadly about future needs, including recruitment, hiring and retention. As governments engage with emerging generations of employees, there are new opportunities to gain from technological innovation that is intentional and forward-thinking. The alternative is to embrace the fate of the dinosaurs and become victims of the inevitable march of time.

Author:  Tanya Settles is the CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC.  Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations.  Tanya can be reached at [email protected].  The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.  Tanya worries she’s the dinosaur in the room, but she’s willing to learn.

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