Why Even a Public Management Expert Might Not Take a Government Job

Neil Reichenberg has devoted his career to helping the public sector hire and keep employees.
December 8, 2016
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Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Unlike many employees these days, Neil Reichenberg has worked at the same place for more than three decades. That's fitting because a big part of his job is to help other employers keep their best workers.

As executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, Reichenberg is widely known as an expert in workforce management. He's frequently called upon to consult with governments across the country that are struggling to hire and retain employees.

We recently talked to him about what the public sector can do to become more attractive, why he himself might not take a government job today, and more. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

We hear a lot about the difficulties confronting cities, counties and states in hiring, developing and retaining a skilled workforce. Can you put that in context?

It’s a tough time to be working in government. The recession fortunately seems to be behind us, but most of the job recovery has been in the private sector. When the recession came, governments cut back on pay increases. Today, public-sector employment is worse than it was before the recession, and turnover is going up. This has been the case even though there’s been population growth and more demands on governments to provide services.

What are the biggest issues confronting HR departments?

No. 1 is workforce and succession planning. This is particularly important now. You can delay retirements, but you can’t delay aging. So governments need to design a pipeline.

Several years ago, only about 27 percent of our members were doing anything about workforce succession. They don’t have staff, they don’t have the commitment of top-level leadership, and they have more short-term political leadership.

HR departments need to step in with the data and show departments that over the next few years, 50 percent of the leadership could walk out the door. That should get their attention and encourage them to do appropriate planning.

What’s the nature of the planning that you’d like to see? 

It has to start with data. Governments need to know the demographics of the workforce, how long people have been in their jobs and what kinds of benefits have been promised. They also need to know whether they're training and developing employees so they can move into higher positions. Many just don’t have this information.

They can then develop a value proposition for the retention and acquisition of new employees. For example, they can consider using this information to make the case for civil service reforms. You often hear complaints about the government hiring process. Frankly, if somebody asked me to apply for a government job today that involved going through a detailed testing process, I don’t know if I’d show up.

Most experts, including you, have indicated that one of the biggest obstacles to creating the best workforce possible is the lack of funds for good compensation. Assuming that to be the case, what other approaches would you take to attract and retain the best and the brightest?

Government has a great story about its mission and what it does to improve the lives of the people it serves. Making sure people see that can be a powerful recruitment tool.

Additionally, people can work for government and make lateral moves into virtually any area they find interesting. There are so many careers in government that people can follow through on an interest in finance or technology or agriculture or practically any field they can find in the private sector. This kind of job diversity isn’t present in corporations.

Have you heard of any particularly innovative approaches to getting the most out of a workforce?

One HR person I heard recently was talking about how she was going to recommend a results-oriented workforce. The concept is that people can work wherever or however they want to work, as long as they get done what you want them to do.

That sounds like a terrific idea. What are the obstacles?

How can you explain to the press that your employees don’t have to come to work on any given day? The citizenry may not be ready for that.

How have things been changing for the better for state and local workforces?

People are focusing a lot on creating a flexible workforce and fostering the importance of a work/life balance. They’re making it easier, for example, to telecommute. But telecommuting is typically only done one or two days out of the week. Otherwise people can easily wind up out of the loop if they’re not seeing people on a regular basis, even if it’s just in an informal way.

Do HR departments have sufficient input into creating an amenable environment for employees? 

HR is the only department that has the people in the organization as its primary mission. States and localities should want their HR people involved in any decisions that impact the employees. But that's often not the case.