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Government's Journey to the Future of Work

Public-sector management practices and workplace tools rooted in the distant past can't address today's complex challenges.

(U.S. Army)
Apple has integrated 9,000 trees into its futuristic new headquarters campus, reflecting research showing that greenery in workplaces increases productivity by 15 percent. Several years ago, Google's People Analytics division launched "Project Aristotle" to understand the components of productive teams, embracing research that groups are more creative than individuals. Private-sector businesses are automating tedious tasks, augmenting workers with artificial-intelligence technologies, reskilling and upskilling their workforces, focusing on employee wellness, and hungrily recruiting talent.

Government will have to catch up. Perhaps nowhere is the gap between the public and private sector greater than in workforce management. Most public-sector organizations are still locked into decades-old employee policies such as rigid job classifications, lockstep pay and a reliance on seniority as a substitute for capability.

The reality is that government agencies are increasingly called upon to address society's most complex challenges while using workforce approaches rooted in the distant past. The good news: Change is possible -- and beginning to happen. A new Deloitte study explores some of the ways the nature of government work, the public workforce itself and the workplace it occupies will all need to continue to evolve:

Work: New technologies can transform the capabilities of a government worker. Artificially intelligent chatbots, for example, can perform triage on citizen questions, freeing human attention for less-routine queries. The Army's recruitment chatbot, SGT STAR, does the work of 55 recruiters, answering 94 percent of questions. A Deloitte analysis of AI's potential found that automation could save the federal government as much as 1.2 billion hours of work annually.

What AI doesn't automate, it can enhance. Child-welfare caseworkers -- who according to one study spend just 9 percent of their time with children but 37.5 percent of their time on paperwork -- could use technology to auto-populate documentation, freeing time for visits. AI also can correlate hospital, truancy and arrest records to flag children in danger. Some restaurant health inspectors already analyze big data to identify likely candidates for inspections. In Chicago, for instance, tests found 24 percent more critical violations and on average isolated dangers from the food system a week earlier.

For effective work redesign, it's helpful to adopt a two-pronged strategy of zooming in and zooming out. A zooming-in approach hones in on individual tasks and processes that have the most potential to be optimized through automation. Zooming out entails looking at the bigger picture to define what work redesign means for entire job classifications, departments and the organization as a whole.

Workforce: Specialists in fields like cybersecurity, agile development and artificial intelligence are not likely to commit decades to one government position, and if they did they'd still need to swap into the tech sector periodically to sharpen their skills.

That's why some government technology programs are taking a "tour of duty" approach, letting private-sector experts serve in the public sector for a few years on specific projects without locking them into a lifetime of government work. At the federal level, the General Services Administration's 18F digital services agency, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program all help government solve problems with temporary outside hires. At the state level, Michigan's Cyber Civilian Corps, a volunteer group of cybersecurity professionals from the private sector and academia as well as government, can be called upon if the governor declares a cyber emergency.

And long-term government workers don't need to be stuck in one place. A "talent cloud" can prepare for unexpected staffing needs by identifying in advance workers with special skills and applying them to tasks suited to their expertise. Canada is experimenting with letting multiple agencies dip into a talent cloud and hire workers for specific missions. Workers keep their union membership, rights and benefits, but may be called into service by any agency.

Workplace: Empirical science rarely guides hiring. But management is becoming more data-driven. Applying the newest science on team-building, personal efficiency and employee wellness to government agencies can upgrade the workplace to better attract, retain and utilize talent.

Insights from studies of the composition and functioning of effective teams can inform decisions about using talents more effectively. Organizational network analysis, for example, can use metadata from emails and other sources to map communication patterns in organizations, accurately predicting individuals who will be high performers, detecting unsatisfied employees six months before they actually quit, and identifying leadership behaviors that correlate with success.

Modern workplace wellness programs are also extremely impactful. Improving employee wellness can reduce lost work days, increase retention and fuel productivity. After the University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center provided a physician and nurse case manager for employees, it saw an 80 percent decline in lost work days over six years, for a cost savings of $1.5 million.

In short, the future of government work will require a level of dynamic workforce management far beyond the current practices of the public sector. The potential for government agencies to unlock more human-capital potential and make the public sector a magnet for talent is enormous.

Executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.
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