Co-Creating the Government Work Experience

The public sector's workforce challenges won't be solved by the management practices of the past. Employee buy-in is essential.
May 24, 2018
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By Howard Risher  |  Contributor
Consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

All of the evidence suggests that government's staffing problems are likely to get worse. The reasons are well documented: an aging workforce and other demographic trends, along with fiscal stresses and government's comparatively poor "brand" as an employer. The solution is obvious: developing strategies to make jobs more attractive, and doing so in close consultation with employees in a process of "co-creation." But there has been far too little movement in that direction in the public sector.

The seeds for the problem were planted a century ago when civil-service systems became deeply embedded and dictated how work and workers are managed. States started initiating civil-service reforms over 20 years ago, but far too many jurisdictions continue to rely on a management philosophy and people-management practices that are ill suited to attracting and retaining today's workers.

A core challenge, particularly in government, is the differences in job expectations of the three, sometimes four and occasionally as many as five generations of workers at the same site. They have different attitudes toward loyalty, innovation, trust, career advancement, recognition, communication -- the list is long. Governments' fiscal problems intensify the impact of the differences, while civil-servant protections and unions feed resistance to the policy changes that would attract young workers.

In the past, new workforce management practices or systems were usually developed and refined in the private sector and marketed to government. Those strategies are costly. Moreover, there has been little research to learn how private-sector practices need to be modified to work effectively in government.

Workforce management practices were actually very similar across the sectors until the 1990 recession. Companies were forced to cut costs and become more responsive and less bureaucratic. They eliminated layers of management, broadening the span of a supervisor's control, which gave employees more autonomy. Today in business it's common to find teams that effectively manage themselves or rarely see their manager. Trust is essential, along with frequent communication.

It's in that environment that IBM invited employees to help rethink its HR policies and practices. The company's experience is discussed in an interview with Diane Gherson, IBM's chief human resources officer, in a Harvard Business Review article titled "Co-Creating the Employee Experience." The business case for change, Gherson says, is that employee engagement explains two-thirds of the company's customer-experience scores. "Before, we tended to rely on experts to build our HR programs," she adds. "Now we bring employees into the design process, co-create with them, and iterate over time so that we meet people's needs."

That is a major departure from HR practices of the past, in which policies and practices typically were developed behind closed doors and rolled out with no involvement by anyone except senior officers (who frequently had only marginal interest). Employee reactions were often ignored. IBM's co-creation process, in contrast, couldn't be more welcoming to employee participation. "We'd love your input," Gherson wrote one day in an internal company blog. "If you hate it, we'll start over, no problem. But we really want your thoughts." She received 18,000 responses overnight.

That story says a lot about the dramatic change in one company's management philosophy, but many companies listed as "best places to work" would have similar stories. Leading companies are now willing to adopt what a few years ago would have been seen as radical approaches to creating attractive and productive work environments.

Co-creation is hardly new. In education, going back decades, universities have relied on employee task forces to develop new HR programs. The practice also has also been common in health care. Employees understand current problems and organizational values better than outside experts.

In the late 1990s when the District of Columbia's parole and probation offices were merged to form a new federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, I was asked to work with a team of what are now called community supervision officers to plan a new pay system to reward the best performers. Their commitment was obvious, and the new system reflected the then-current thinking in the field.

The thread that runs through these stories is the value of securing employee buy-in to changes that make the work experience more satisfying. Asking employees what needs to be improved is a simple, minimal-cost step that almost inevitably will be welcomed and generate improved practices. Open dialogue is the best way to bring the different factions of the workforce together. Unions can play a role, but only to encourage broad employee participation. It is a proven strategy to make career opportunities and an employer's brand more attractive.

In government as in business, employees want to be involved. They want their employer to be successful and highly regarded. Soliciting employee ideas opens the door to a better work experience, one that can go a long way toward easing government's staffing challenges.