How Government Can Be a ‘Best Place to Work’

To compete with the private sector for talent, public-sector organizations need to transform the ways they manage and develop their workforces.
by | February 7, 2017

Peter Hutchinson

Leader of management consulting strategy for Accenture’s U.S. state and local government practice

Each year, thousands of companies vie to win top spots on high-profile lists of "Best Places to Work." Winning, however, is about more than bragging rights. It can help an organization stay competitive in the ongoing battle for talent.

Whether in business or government, there's not enough talent to meet demand. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the nation's working-age population could decline by as much as 9 percent by 2030 as baby boomers retire. At the same time, many high-school and college graduates do not possess the skills that employers need.

In response, private-sector employers have upped their game, changing how they define, discover, develop and deploy talent. To become and stay competitive, governments must do the same. Here are five strategies that will help public-sector organizations attract and retain the kind of employees they need to excel in their missions:

Recruit more from within: In a recent Accenture survey, 64 percent of public-sector leaders said that their organizations have strong problem-solving skills, while 62 percent cited strengths in analytical and quantitative thinking. Despite these views, most government talent-management strategies prioritize external recruitment over hiring from within.

Instead of competing head-to-head with the private sector, public-sector leaders can and should focus on developing qualified candidates within their own and other government organizations. Hiring internally is time- and cost-effective, and it demonstrates to employees that their employers will invest in them.

Develop your people: Organizations that provide opportunities for growth tend to retain employees longer, and data suggests that this is especially true for the public sector. Compared to the general public, government employees surveyed express significantly more interest in opportunities for professional development, with more than 70 percent saying they want to improve their skills in such key areas as leadership, collaboration, communication, problem-solving and analytical thinking.

A crucial piece of the talent-development puzzle is performance management. True employee development aligns career plans with employees' specific goals. Progress on this front has been slow, but to be considered a "Best Place to Work," public-sector organizations should strive for evaluation systems that address employees' individual career plans. This is particularly true for millennials, who tend to pursue jobs that offer variety, challenges and opportunities for career growth.

Be flexible: As technology develops, the workforce is becoming more mobile and "liquid." Employees expect greater flexibility, including accommodation of part-time schedules and telecommuting. Such arrangements allow workers to better meet their unique goals and preferences while helping organizations leverage a wider variety of talent options.

Accenture research also shows that one-third fewer people think that public-sector careers offer flexible work arrangements compared to the private sector. Governments should look into more flexible approaches to help narrow this gap.

Think talent description, not job description: The typical government job listing uses industry-specific jargon and is structured around title, hierarchy, responsibilities and educational requirements. Skills and characteristics required for success are often missing from the equation.

By focusing more on talents rather than titles, government can expand the pool of viable candidates and increase the likelihood of a good match. Government employees will be better positioned to advance professionally, while employers will better understand the potential return on investment for employee development.

Use technology to your advantage: The most effective talent-management strategies incorporate data analytics to help leaders identify the strongest talent pipelines as well as the qualities that bring the greatest value to the workforce. Gathering and processing such information can support more targeted, efficient recruitment and development.

At least one large state's human resources division is currently rolling out data analytics to help identify high performers, anticipate attrition, track workplace productivity and improve payroll and service delivery. Every public employer should be moving in the same direction.

There are many factors, of course, in winning a spot on one of those "Best Places to Work" lists, but these strategies can lay a solid foundation. And there are reasons to be optimistic that those efforts can pay off: According to Accenture's 2016 College Graduate Employment Study, interest in public-sector careers among millennials has been increasing. Governments that want to win the battle for talent must capitalize on this momentum.

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