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Workforce and Succession Planning in Government

Nearly ten years ago, we first heard about succession planning in government. In anticipation of massive baby boomer retirements, human resource practitioners were advocating for organizations to consider how to manage this impending knowledge drain. When the current economic crisis hit, focus shifted from managing the future to managing current resources and dealing with the reduction in revenue streams. This does not mean government doesn’t have an impending crisis; it means we need to rethink workforce and succession planning (WSP) and how it can be managed in a constrained environment. In this article we begin to explore why WSP is still an issue and how governments can begin to address the issue without significant financial investment.

Recently we have seen an increase in retirement rates for government employees, with 22 percent reporting that employees have accelerated their retirement date, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. This highlights the need to not only project knowledge needs, but to continually assess and replenish this base for the organization. Ensuring that we make appropriate hires, train and retain staff become critical to the ever-evolving public sector work environment. Consider some statistics on the costs of bad hires, inadequate training or inappropriate placements:

  • Cost per day when operating without a key player: $7,000
  • Cost of a poor hire: $300,000 – $500,000
  • Rate of efficiency at which an organization must operate as a result of poor engagement levels: 30%
  • Average time for a new manager to become productive: 6 months
  • Percentage of employees who are well suited for their roles: 20%
  • Cost of losing a talented employee: $250,000 – $500,000 (“Strategic Workforce Planning,” Human Capital Institute)

Complicating the situation is the recent change in the perception of job security in government employment. No formal studies have examined this, but we expect that recent events—the movements to limit bargaining rights of governmental employees, pension reforms, reduced local revenues, an overall compression of the workforce—have further distracted government executives from workforce and succession planning.  In an era of doing more with less, how do HR managers deal with the situation?  According to CPS Human Resources, organizations with an integrated rather than a just-in-time approach to WSP experience higher retention rates, increased employee morale, and an environment that stimulates innovation and organizational change.

We have developed a model that we use with local government agencies to maximize resources while maintaining service level expectations. The methodology that we advocate can be adopted by agencies at a low cost to the organization. The following diagram summarizes our five-step process:


To start, we recommend creating an oversight committee that is responsible for resolving issues related to the development of a succession plan. Typically, senior and middle managers representing the critical business areas of the organization would be on this committee. These managers would then be responsible for reviewing all positions for the organization as part of step one. This task is focused on two main issues: identifying the key leadership positions for the organization and identifying those positions that are critical to the mission and accomplishment of organization objectives. These are the positions that your organization simply cannot live without.  This should never be more than 15 percent of the total positions for the organization

Next, the team should discuss the base competencies that the organization and staff need in order to successfully accomplish their objectives. Instead of re-creating the wheel, we encourage governments to utilize some of the frameworks that have already been established and modify them to meet  organization-specific needs. The following chart provides links to a sampling of some of these:

Area of Focus Resource
Energy Utility Industry Center for Energy Workforce Development
Information Technology State of Missouri Department of Economic Development
Human Resources US Office of Personnel Management
Leadership US Department of AgricultureUniversity of Iowa
General State of Georgia


Remember that these competencies must be aligned with any performance measurement and professional development process that your organization has. If not, there is simply no link between what is valued and what is taught in the organization.

Additionally, we recommend that you identify potential candidates for the positions you’ve identified in the first step of this process. While still respecting competition in the process, the assessment of your “bench strength” allows you to determine where your knowledge gaps exist and conduct professional development activities. Once you have determined the competencies and what your organization’s current capacity for these are, you are in a better position to begin planning programs for the future.

After you have identified the positions, competencies and gaps, then you are able to begin devising specific strategies targeted at improving institutional knowledge. You can employ a number of different strategies to do this. The following list provides a brief overview of some of the key strategies and tools that organizations utilize:

Training: Training provides employees with information that can allow them to perform their current job duties in the most efficient way possible and can also grow employees into new positions, duties, and responsibilities. Training can take many forms—self-study, directed, internal, external, eLearning, etc.

Coaching & Mentoring: Increasingly utilized in WSP, it allows for seasoned veterans of your organization to work with the next generation to impart knowledge about organizational culture, work policies and procedures, and softer skills such as employee management.

Performance Evaluation: To grow and develop your workforce, you must be able to accurately assess performance and ensure that it is strategically aligned with your competency framework. Additionally, where performance is deficient, you need to have plans for how to improve upon it.

Knowledge Management: Focuses on retaining institutional memory and knowledge that can be lost when experienced workers depart organizations. Institutional memory encompasses what the members of an organization have learned as a direct consequence of living through experiences and participating in decision making. An effective knowledge retention program can help mitigate potential skill shortages in key functions.

9 Box: The 9-box grid is an individual assessment tool that evaluates both an employee’s current contribution and his/her potential level of contribution. This tool allows managers to easily view employees’ actual and potential performance. It can serve as a planning tool for performance management and training plans.

WSP does not have to be a costly endeavor. However, if left unaddressed, the organization may experience substantial sunk costs in terms of lost knowledge of organizational history and of policies/procedures. An organization may also suffer from decreased performance and customer satisfaction. With some small steps, organizations can position themselves for sustained service delivery and stability.To make sure that these strategies are tightly integrated within the organization, we recommend developing formal policies and procedures for the management of WSP. Revisiting the success and effectiveness of these programs is a critical activity moving forward.


Author: Shelley L. Fulla is a senior manager at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP.

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