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State government leaders are re-evaluating how they recruit, develop, manage, and engage twenty-first-century employees. To keep pace with the private sector, states need to evaluate how work is organized and rewarded, how people are hired and evaluated, and the overall employee experience.
Today, most citizens expect government to deliver at Internet speed—and are too often disappointed. Those state leaders who can deliver high-level services may enjoy a competitive advantage.
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But how can state leaders achieve twenty-first century performance management with workforce approaches often rooted in the twentieth century? Elected officials rely on state employees to carry out their agendas, but often struggle to get the best from their workforce, for reasons that may be both structural and cultural.
In a nutshell, the challenge is this: From recruitment to compensation to pension systems, the way most state governments manage their workforce doesn’t seem well suited for attracting and retaining top employees—particularly those with digital-age skills. Today’s most innovative and disruptive firms have reimagined work. In contrast, government too often still operates on legacy employment rules from a bygone era.
Perhaps the greatest divergence today between government and the private sector isn’t technology; it may lie in how work gets done. How work is organized. How it's rewarded. How people are hired. How team performance is measured and optimized. What the employee experience feels like.
The problem isn’t with public workers—it’s with the systems in which they work. State employees often have a wealth of domain expertise and are steeped in the complexities of various policy areas, from air quality regulations to SNAP eligibility, from budgeting to procurement. But while important, such knowledge alone won’t be enough if state government is to keep pace with the technology revolution rapidly transforming the private sector.
In these times of change, leaders across government are being pressed to rewrite the “rules” for how they recruit, develop, manage, and engage twenty-first-century employees.
Here’s a typical state job description, modified from a state employment website:
Program Director 1, Compliance Reviewer: This position provides mental health and substance use expertise to review new and existing entities licensed or certified by the Department of Mental Health. Position is responsible for reviewing provider policies and procedures, client files, and other collateral information for compliance with laws and contract requirements. Master’s degree, licensure in substance use treatment or mental health field preferred.
The job listing then goes on to list all the benefits of working for this particular state, including pension, vacation, dental coverage, free parking (!), and the like.
Would this inspire you, or anyone you know, to apply for this position? Hardly. While it explains what the job entails and what you’ll receive for doing it, it misses the most critical element of all: the why. The mission. The purpose. Compare it with this ad for the same job:
Substance Recovery Director: Are you a mental health professional concerned about the opioid epidemic and other addictions? Come join the team at the State Department of Mental Health, where you can put your knowledge of substance abuse treatment to work as we combat one of the biggest public health challenges of our time. We have the resources to help you make a bigger difference than you ever thought possible.
If you recruit people by telling them about the dental benefits, you will get applicants who care about dental benefits. If you recruit people by telling them how they can make a positive impact—well, you might be surprised at who might apply.
One of the advantages that state employment has in attracting great candidates is the critical mission that benefits society. Instead of selling widgets, state employees are keeping the roads safe, helping the homeless, putting away criminals, and so forth. Intangibles such as purpose may be even more important than the size of the paycheck.3
But many state governments have a brand problem.4 Many job seekers won’t automatically equate state government and “good cause.” Take every opportunity to remind them.
In an era of incremental change, the gradual development of leaders working their way up the ranks might have made sense. But in today’s era of rapid change, leadership development often needs to be accelerated, and it should include more than training programs. Most leaders need firsthand experience driving change, especially during large-scale transitions.
Government agencies should engage high-potential leaders in real-world scenarios that expose them to digital disruption in order to help develop a pipeline of leaders equipped to lead through change.5 Strong government leaders typically embrace innovation and risk-taking, and they ideally have a strong technical understanding. A frequent lament among state leaders is the challenge of finding enough employees with the professional skills needed to drive change in areas such as cybersecurity, data analytics, and digital government. Hands-on experience is critical. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) created a boot camp-style digital academy to train and upskill staff. Workers are trained on key elements of digital technology such as user-centric design, agile development, and digital government services.6 While started by the DWP in 2014, the Digital Academy has now been expanded to provide digital training to the rest of the UK government. 7
Read more about the GovCloud model at GovCloud: The future of government work.
The “GovCloud” model represents a potential future of state government talent management. In a GovCloud model, high performers aren’t put into traditional, static jobs. Instead, they are given assignments, and can be shifted to various departments and projects as needed. While likely not for everyone, this agile, collaborative, and efficient talent pool often fits well with the talents and preferences of younger professionals as well as meeting the rapidly shifting needs of government organizations.
With this in mind, a GovCloud talent pool translates the job-hopping consultant model to the permanent workforce.8
Imagine a techie in her early twenties—let’s call her Tina—starting a job at a state department of transportation. After working at the agency for a year, Tina finds herself seeking a new challenge. Under the GovCloud model, she could undertake a wide variety of creative, problem-focused work in a virtual staffing cloud. And she wouldn’t be limited to the department of transportation.
While young workers may vary in background and expertise, many exhibit traits of “free agents”—self-sufficiency, self-motivation, and strong loyalty to teams, colleagues, and clients. A cloud system would allow teams to form and dissolve as needed, encouraging civil servants to focus on specific project outcomes rather than ongoing operations. Tina, for instance, could start a six-month stint at the department of health and human services helping to design mobile apps for social workers. As a cloud worker, she could go wherever her skills are needed and where her passion draws her—learning and growing along the way. From the agency’s perspective, the department of transportation may not require a permanent, full-time employee building mobile apps, but could use the occasional infusion of just-in-time talent in areas such as data analytics, project management, or behavioral economics.
While the conventional wisdom among many state HR officials holds that millennials (defined as those born between 1980 and 1995) can be particularly hard to recruit and retain in state government jobs, that may not be true.9 In fact, many millennials want to work in government; millennials don’t leave government jobs more frequently than other generations; and millennials’ age-specific turnover rates are lower than Generation X’s.10 Provide a positive work environment, and millennials could become key long-term contributors.
One of the worst things a boss can do is ignore an employee, and that may be especially true of purpose-driven millennials. Performance management at its best is real-time, ongoing, and blended between formal and informal regular “check-ins.” Frequent feedback can fuel performance and drive exceptional work.11
Once hired, state government workers can thrive if their organizations view them as “customers” with choices about where they work. Digital technology has transformed the customer experience in recent years, and digital tools could similarly reshape the employee experience.
Becoming digital is not just about new or more technology, but about platforms that provide access to knowledge, tools, and support at critical moments in the journey. A digital HR platform can help employees create a personalized career journey, receive regular feedback, and keep track of their training and development.
Outdated and poorly designed technologies can increase the time it takes to get the job done, creating an environment where employees could feel frustrated and unproductive. For example, digital tools can streamline much of the “paperwork” associated with child welfare and other family services—freeing up social workers to do social work.
It used to be that most state government workers were “lifers”—they started young, worked their whole careers within state government, and looked forward to a predictable pension when they retired. But this talent model doesn’t seem to work as well in today’s climate of job mobility, skill shortages, and retirement portability. Long-term employees can still be an important part of the government workforce, but they’ll likely be joined by other sources of talent:
Increasingly, many state governments are looking at a fifth source of talent—digital labor. Digital labor is the technology that can augment human capabilities and extend the reach of government workers. State governments have the opportunity to invest in technologies that could relieve overburdened departments. Those technologies could come to be seen as partners with government workers, and would finally help break the trade-off between holding down costs and meeting the mission.13
For a real-world example of innovative talent strategies in state government, look no further than California. California is often ground zero in the tech talent wars, so it may not be surprising to see the Golden State innovating with its state IT workforce. Faced with a 34 percent vacancy rate for IT workers, California Health Care Services’ IT department adopted a variety of measures to tackle the metrics. For example, the IT department adopted a telecommuting policy that allowed employees to work from home on specific project activities, helping them keep their work-life balance. The state uses technology to allow employees to work whenever they want throughout the day, rather than tying them to a traditional eight-hour workday. Another effort in this direction was providing employees with substantial training opportunities in new technologies. As a result of these measures, the department’s vacancy rate for IT positions dropped to 5 percent.14
California’s overall IT system is rebooting its job titles and classifications in order to attract and retain employees. The NASCIO 2016 state CIO survey found that “modernizing IT job titles and classifications” was state CIOs’ top concern with respect to personnel reform. Several states as well as local governments have now started to address this concern with job reclassification initiatives. 15 In California, this effort is a part of the larger Civil Service Improvement Initiative. Started in 2014, the “IT Classification Consolidation Project” eliminated more than 2500 classifications, consolidating the job titles into just 60 classifications. The purpose of the initiative was to make it easier for qualified applicants to understand the career opportunities that they have with the state of California.16