It’s time to rethink government people management practices

The government is approaching a labor dilemma, a dilemma that has taken a long time to arise and which the COVID-19 crisis has made even more urgent: whether to initiate much-needed but unpopular change internally in how government work is done and managed, or continue to rely on outdated practices.

Failing to face this dilemma could hurt performance at a time when efficient and effective government is needed more than ever. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said during the presentation of his state’s fiscal year 2021 budget, “This is a moment in history unlike any other, and the government must work and produce results. …”

It will of course be all the more difficult to achieve results at a time of falling tax revenues and unexpected and unreimbursed pandemic-related expenses, which have already reduced state and local government employment by more than 1.5 million jobs. An analytics firm predicts that 3 million more state and local jobs could be lost in the coming months, including those for first responders as well as jobs in social services, sanitation, health care and other vital public services.

Despite investments in technology, the government remains dependent on its people and capacity. When emergencies arise, public servants prove time and again that they are capable of impressive accomplishments. Creating work environments that support high performance has been a theme in other industries for more than two decades.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted several workforce issues that together will make it difficult, if not impossible, to meet public expectations without a complete overhaul of government people management practices:

• The government was experiencing talent shortages prior to the current crisis. The shortages have been triggered by demographic trends, the emergence of new skill requirements and a tight labor market, among other factors. These shortages will persist after the pandemic.

• Where governments continue to hire, fill vacancies that cannot be eliminated, business closures and layoffs in other sectors are likely to trigger increased demand for public sector jobs . However, former private sector employees who feel dissatisfied with their government experience may choose to return to their former employer. It is expensive for governments.

• Few elected officials have experience managing large groups of employees. They ran for office because of public policy concerns, not better management. And political differences often block efforts to change outdated civil service laws.

A report of the National Academy of Public Administration denounced the “all-too-common culture of compliance in government…where meeting the requirements of the rules has become more important than creating value for taxpayers”. Public service rules contribute to this culture and act as a barrier to change, since it is an ingrained principle that employees are treated the same, regardless of their contributions.

• The typical government workforce is aging, with many employees retiring less than a decade later. They are used to working in a culture of compliance. There are a number of reasons why people resist change, but one that is all too common in government is distrust of elected officials.

• Polls show that interest in public sector careers is declining among young Americans. The perceived qualities of a government job do not match their interests. Meanwhile, public employers too often rely on outdated systems for hiring, training and career management. The George Floyd protests risk intensifying this lack of interest.

For decades public employers have operated with people management policies and practices that have ignored what is happening in labor markets and what in other sectors has been a revolution in the way the work and workers are managed. The public administration academic community is largely ignorant of workforce management.

But in response to the COVID-19 crisis, long-needed changes have been prompted in the government work management paradigm that are closer to what is now common in the private sector. Remote work, for example, changes the supervisor-employee relationship; they now have to agree on what needs to be accomplished, and employees have more autonomy in how they achieve results.

Additionally, the need for frontline workers to respond to coronavirus hotspots means greater flexibility in staffing; the counterparts of these workers who hold hidden administrative jobs have learned that they are less important. Professional expertise is more valued; commitment and high performance are valued; agility and problem-solving skills are valued. It’s no longer a “do what you’re told and follow the rules” work environment. Heroic efforts and results are recognized.

The pandemic has also sparked new roles for human resources specialists: working with managers to strengthen relationships with remote workers; keep those who are still at work healthy; maintaining morale; and, when layoffs are necessary, take the initiative to identify individuals that agencies can – and cannot – afford to lose.

It is entirely possible to permanently shift to a work environment and culture that reduces labor costs and promotes improved performance. In the late 1980s, American businesses faced global low-cost competition that sparked a revolution in workforce management that unleashed organizational energy.

Lessons learned are readily available to the public sector, and the most recent large-scale success story in government is the state of Tennessee. The state’s reform strategy, a transformation of its civil service system encompassing goal-based management and pay-for-performance, was initiated by the then government. Bill Haslam shortly after his inauguration in 2011 and led by Rebecca Hunter, then the state’s commissioner of human resources.

HR expertise is at the heart of reforms like Tennessee’s, but changes of this magnitude are only possible if HR partners effectively with elected officials, executives and managers. When the end of the pandemic crisis is in sight, HR will need to take the initiative to transition to a new normal. Now would be a great time to seek input from managers and employees, to understand what works and what doesn’t. They want to contribute and have their value recognized. It’s an opportunity to fix problems and shift government permanently to practices that support better performance.


GoverningThe opinion columns of reflect the opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of Governingeditors or management.


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