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The Great Resignation and the Public Service—A New Leadership Landscape

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

By Patrick S. Malone
February 4, 2022

At the end of the calendar year, we often see various organizations produce reports that assess the current state of the public service and future challenges to its ability to deliver services to citizens. The National Academy for Public Administration, for example, proposes twelve grand challenges that include the need for attention to issues such as electoral integrity, social equity, new approaches to governance, modernizing the public service, building resilient communities, advancing fiscal health, addressing climate change, ensuring data security and artificial intelligence readiness, advancing national interest in a global world and connecting individuals to meaningful work. No small task.

Tackling the efforts to care for our citizens, whether it be in small villages or large cities, county, state or national, will be a daunting task to say the least. Some will necessitate innovation, creativity, trust, resources and passion. Necessary steps may require collegiality among political appointees on different sides of the aisle and patience on the part of public managers as they guide programmatic agendas into policy implementation. But there is one thing that all of these challenges have in common, the need for a passionate and engaged workforce, a force dwindling as we speak.

Much has been written about the Great Resignation. The term, coined by organizational psychologist Anthony Klotz. Klotz predicted that there would be a mass resignation based on multiple factors. He was right. In August of 2021, 4.3 million workers departed. By November, that number climbed to 4.5 million. These numbers include Gen-Zs, Boomers, Xrs, and Millennials. Frontline workers have left, especially in the hospitality, health care and retail sectors, leaving critical points of contact with the general public vacant. As of January 2022, 4.4% of all positions in education were available, 6% in retail and over 8% in health care. There are currently 350,000 construction jobs open across the country.

Of course, there are critics. Some have expressed that we’ve only collected data on resignations since 2001, so we have a short timeframe with which to assess what is really happening. Others point to a hiring surge that is offsetting the resignation trend. Some contest that all we are witnessing are people switching jobs. Still, the numbers don’t lie, and the Great Resignation is affecting everyone: blue-collar, white-collar and everything in between. This means the effect on our public service is real. Professions including construction, safety, finance and healthcare are impacted and if our municipalities are looking to tackle any of the 2022 challenges, we must take the lessons of the Great Resignation seriously. 

Employees are leaving for many reasons, spurred heavily by the pandemic. Some have realized they could retire or depend on less income. Others reassessed their life balance and decided they aren’t going to work so hard anymore. But the majority have concluded that the workplace of the past with its long commute, toxic culture and narcissistic boss, no longer has a place in their lives—lives that they’ve seen cut short with the loss of friends and family as the pandemic has grown. Will these employees come back? Maybe.

The post-pandemic workforce is demanding more from their employers, and if we in the public service want to ensure our 2022 challenges are met, we must remember that our employees are our greatest resource. It is incumbent on leaders to avoid the tendency to “get back to normal.” Normal is gone, and all we have is now. Consider the following areas of focus to recapture the engagement of the people in public service that we depend on so heavily.

Create environments of psychological safety. There is no single greater predictor of organizational success than that of psychological safety. Human beings have an inherent need for safety, transparency and compassion. Research shows that these factors create organizations that are far more successful in meeting their missions than toxic workplaces.

Make telework work. The research on virtual work has proven that in many cases, it is a superior alternative to the traditional workplace setting, and virtual work is nothing new.

One study in The Journal of Business and Psychology noted that telework achieved increased levels of performance when working from home as opposed to the company office. And in 2021, Global Workplace Analytics reported 36% would choose telework over a pay raise.

Meet employees where they are. We have lived, and are living, through a pandemic. No two lives were touched in the exact same way by this crisis in the past two years. Some lost friends and family. All of us struggled with fear and uncertainty. Make time in the workplace for empathy, listening and kindness. The social currency you build with your teams will be lasting.

The challenges faced by public servants are well documented and the bar for success in 2022 is higher than it has ever been. Citizens depend more than ever on services that our public sector provides and on the people who provide them. Let’s begin tackling the work ahead of us by remembering that the individual public servant, their commitment, their engagement and their passion are the keys to our success in the coming year.

Author: Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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