Dealing with Disruptive Change in the Public Workforce

How can employees and managers address and benefit from changes in government? Patrick Ibarra, a former city manager and now workforce consultant, provides insight on how to keep employees focused and engaged.
by | July 15, 2011

If you're a public employee, it may not be easy to see what the future of public service may look like. There are many factors changing what government careers entail, be it using social media on the job, saying goodbye to the idea of a defined-benefit plan or dealing with a delayed opportunity to move ahead. It can be daunting. How can employees at all levels prepare themselves for the changes they'll face and use those to advance their careers?

Patrick Ibarra, a workforce consultant and co-founder of the Mejorando Group, spent 15 years working in the city manager office in places like Port Angeles, Wash., and Mason, Ohio. He uses this experience to consult with a number of city and state governments regarding workforce planning issues. Governing reached out to Ibarra, who will be giving a keynote speech to early-career professionals at the Next Generation of Government Summit this month, to find out more the changes governments are facing and what advice he has for employees and managers in this edited e-mail interview.

What are some of the issues your clients are bringing to you regarding changes in government and recruiting and maintaining a public workforce?

First, let's acknowledge that in government there is way too much reliance on the job description as the primary driver to recruiting talent. While it has a purpose, it's way overrated as a predictor of generating qualified candidates. Forward-thinking government leaders want to build a 21st century workforce with a 21st century approach. Unfortunately, as is often the case, there are a number of barriers which prevent that transition and can depict the situation as insurmountable.

What's occurring is that more and more governments are realizing this and have shifted towards a more social marketing approach of building their employer brand. We hear so much about branding today and many government leaders understand that it's much more than adopting a new logo or revising their website. It's about their reputation in the marketplace for recruiting talent. Every organization has a reputation. Some have one that's positive as a place that develops their employees and they tend to attract those types of people. At the other end, there are those whose rep is one that's inert and they tend to attract people who are looking for that type of work environment.

Second is that many government leaders are seriously concerned that when the economy flips, their most talented people, especially the under-40 set, will leave in droves. I've recommended to several clients they convene a "blue chip" group of employees (i.e. top performers and leadership prospects) between the ages of 25 and 40 and ask them one question: "What more can this organization's leadership do to keep you actively engaged in your work?" Blue chippers aren't shy and will offer a candid perspective sharing what they believe can be done to retain them. It probably has little to do with compensation and more to do with needing more challenging work, access to key decision makers and opportunities to have a real impact.

Finally is the topic of succession planning and building an organization's bench of top leaders, mid-managers and supervisors. Not long ago, most governments had sufficient funding to finance a robust leadership development program designed to strengthen their bench. Unfortunately with budget cuts, training was often first on the chopping block. It's a sad commentary, I know. But when leaders consider training as a luxury, it baffles the mind! Training is about equipping your workforce to deal with today's and tomorrow's most pressing challenges. I hear all the time: How are we supposed to respond effectively to demands placed in our organization when we have fewer people and the people we've kept have fewer opportunities to expand their capabilities via training? Over the last several years, I've done extensive work in the area of succession planning throughout the country and (based on this new normal) am recommending they pursue a slightly different approach. For more information about this new approach, please send an email to me at and I'll send you a recent article I penned on this new approach entitled "Succession Planning: The Sequel."

What do you think is the most challenging thing public employees are facing right now in their careers? And how should they deal with those challenges?

Beyond budget cuts, furloughs, and lay-offs, we now have public pension reform occurring in many places and two-tiered benefit plans. Beyond their own personal economic security being reinvented, I believe the most significant challenge public employees are encountering (and for baby boomers, it's even more troubling) is the realization that each of them is a knowledge free-agent. We're way past the cradle-to-grave working arrangement that so many boomers and the generation before them benefitted from, [and] it's very unsettling to many people in the workforce.

Younger employees tend to embrace this fluid arrangement and realize [that] loyalty to an employer is often misplaced and usually overrated. So they're loyal to themselves, to which I say good for them. That's a healthy approach to securing one's own economic security. You've got the keys now; go forth and locate the ignition to drive your career in the direction you want it to resemble. Baby boomers have had to adjust to this new arrangement on the fly and many have done it well. For example, I have several people in my consulting firm who have full-time jobs with a government agency, but enjoy the challenges and opportunities that consulting opportunities offer them. They enjoy the work and the additional income, too. They've implemented their transition plan before it was obvious that they needed one.

In the description for your speech, it mentions a "baby boomerang" effect and how it can help reposition careers. What is the "baby boomerang" effect?

It's a term I've coined to describe the impact on organizations generally, younger employees in particular, as a result of the sheer size of the baby boomer generation. The "baby boomerang" effect is that generation of employees we thought might be leaving the workforce when they hit retirement age are staying and staying and staying! The under-40 crowd, who are poised for new opportunities with their current or another organization, are experiencing the severe lack of those opportunities emerging with any regularity.

Because the boomers are staying (and there are government agencies where I've seen employees who have been with their organization over 40-plus years, which in and of itself is remarkable), the younger set are becoming impatient for those leadership and management positions to open up. They're actively seeking to move on in order to move up. This trend, combined with the reluctance of governments to find out when those older employees are indeed planning to retire, is creating problems.

I recognize there are some legal complexities here, but governments can't afford for the seasoned veteran to decide exactly on their own terms when it fits their life for them to retire and take all their organizational knowledge with them. I'm not suggesting that government leaders should force that discussion, but there's a rather large continuum between not asking employees at all and leaving it up entirely to the employee. A discussion somewhere in the middle is crucial so the organization can prepare for the impact when that employee does leave. Right now, I'm working with the City of Fort Collins, Colo.'s utilities department to implement a powerful and practical knowledge transfer program designed to extract high value tacit knowledge before the most senior employees depart. The absence of institutional knowledge is quickly becoming a real problem in government organizations which are based on continuity, consistency and protocol.

With the structural and technological changes affecting government, what can someone at an entry, middle and senior level do to take advantage of these changes for their benefit? Can they institute operational changes themselves?

Strengthen your innovation muscles by challenging your perspective and stretching your imagination. Beyond reading Governing, start reading non-government material like Wired, Fast Company and Bloomberg Businessweek. Join GovLoop, the Facebook of government employees and begin learning and sharing with other like-minded people what's up in your organization, career and life. Participate on a blog. Invest some time with a teenager at a mall and visit their world. Explore the arts and really confront your biases. Whatever you do, seek to moisten your mind!

All of these actions you take are intended to keep you living in the discomfort zone, which inevitably leads you to look at your world through a different lens. Using a different lens is essential to you bringing forth new ideas on how a work process can be improved or determining a new revenue source for your agency. (Selling naming rights anyone?)

Being innovative is not just a mindset but also an outcome. One has to work at it, like staying in shape. You can say you like feeling better from a grueling workout but you have to actually sweat. Talking about is not the same thing as actually doing something about it.

What can state and local governments do to encourage their current employees to stay motivated and productive despite recent changes? What can they do to ensure that when a position opens up, they have the talent in the right place?

Motivation is always a tricky subject, especially now. First, let's dispel the myth that happy employees are productive. There is no research whatsoever that demonstrates a positive linkage between an employee's happiness and that employee being productive. In fact, research shows us that successful organizations have engaged employees. In other words, outcomes drive behavior and not the other way around. I believe it's a vast oversimplification to think that employees are happy as a result of their job responsibilities. Happiness is much more complicated than that. Now, I'm not advocating that leaders should try to make employees unhappy. That doesn't work either.

Moving on to motivation: What I've seen first-hand is that many public sector employees are exhausted and downright worn out from budgets dominating the last few years of their work life. They're grown-ups. They get the situation in some organizations is unprecedented, but enough already. They worry about the unintended consequences that have occurred from the preoccupation these last few years; that while there was such a heavy concentration on budget-related issues, what other aspects about their organizations' mission [were] neglected? So, an effective means to refresh employees' motivation is for leaders to convene their workforce members and ask one simple question: "What about our organization do we need to focus on and haven't these last few years?" And then listen. Don't try to change people's minds, don't try to convert people because people today want desperately to be heard and acknowledged. Many feel burdened and they keep hearing about more cut backs and tightening the belt. I, for one, think it's time we change our pants!

People today aren't looking for jobs. They're looking for impact and governments at all levels are in the impact business. Unfortunately, many of them don't blend their purpose, which in a nutshell is to improve our citizens and communities quality of life with social marketing to actively enlist those people who are mission-driven. Non-profit agencies often do a wonderful job of appealing to the intrinsic rewards people obtain from serving on a project or collective effort that matters.

Now, the accountant in a government agency may not believe he/she has a role in community building, but indeed they do. Recognizing that public service is a noble profession is a belief we all need to remember and articulate. It's funny, but when it comes to recruiting people, we often get what we look for. You want people that can pass a test; that's who you get. Or if you want people who are committed, passionate about public service, driven to make a difference, than that's who you get. In a way, it's very simple. Governments need to immediately realize that besides being a democratic institution responsible for the equitable delivery of public services, they are also an employer. Once they recognize this, everything about how they view talented people changes.

Tina Trenkner
Tina Trenkner | Deputy Editor, |  |  @tinatrenkner