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When Employees Quit, the Public Sector Panics

Few governments have succession plans in place. The ones that do are seeing some positive results.

Back in 2015, the accountant for the Pension Review Board in Texas resigned. That left the board with a big hole. Succession planning had been weak and “the Agency had neither the staff nor the policies and procedures necessary to enable it to continue processing its payroll and non-payroll expenditures without assistance,” concluded the State Auditor’s office.

A month after the accountant left, desperate to find someone, the board turned to a contractor. Not just any contractor, but the same person who had just left the job.

This violated state statutes that forbid government employees from immediately contracting with the government after exiting it. What’s more, the board also paid out an advance of $16,400 before the contract was even signed -- an equally improper approach.

This kind of situation, emanating from weaknesses in succession planning, may be pretty extreme. But it’s symptomatic of an issue that increasingly concerns government officials.

In May 2015, for example, succession planning was labeled a high-risk issue by the California auditor for several departments, including human resources. With turnover on the rise in many governments and baby boomer retirements an ongoing challenge, succession planning is high on the to-do list of most HR directors. In a recent survey of International Public Management Association for Human Resources members, 60 percent said they were developing a plan for replacing employees and managers at all levels. But only 11 percent actually had a process in place.

Because of civil service rules, succession planning is not a simple proposition in the public sector. For businesses, a replacement can be selected, and groomed, in advance. But in government, that could be labeled as unreasonable favoritism.

“In the private sector, succession planning is more prevalent than in government,” said Karen Niparko, executive director of the Office of Human Resources in Denver. In the public sector, “a lot of succession plans fail because it’s a lot of work."

It takes support from top leadership, understanding of departments' strategic goals, analysis of workplace needs, a solid sense of the attributes needed for critical positions, and a training and development component that will help employees gather skills way before the day when they may be needed. 

In Denver and elsewhere, a key aspect of succession planning is identifying the positions that are likely to be open and prioritizing the ones that will be most critical to fill. At the same time, department heads must start to identify the skills that will be needed both now and in the future.

Since Denver’s career service rules prevent the outright picking of people for soon-to-be-open positions, the city instead has a “workforce readiness” program, which provides employees interested in career development with skills they need to advance. Individual employees may not even know that managers have a potential promotion for them in mind.

Kansas City, Mo., has been working on informal succession planning for about 15 years, but they have become much more formalized in the last year. That's partly due to pressure exerted by an auditor’s report in December 2015. Considering the large number of impending retirements, the audit concluded that the potential loss of knowledge and experience could easily “disrupt the continuity of city services."

Soon after the audit was released, Gary O’Bannon, director of Kansas City's HR department, released a formal succession plan that has a number of elements that parallel Denver's. At the core is a competency-based approach with solid career ladders in place. Ideally, when a position opens up, there will generally be a cadre of staffers ready to fill it.

In Tennessee, where succession planning has been in place for about four years in some departments, it not only provides a feeder system for new jobs but has resulted in improved morale, lower turnover and reduced hiring costs, said Rebecca Hunter, commissioner of the Department of Human Resources there.

Being prepared has also already paid off for Kansas City.

When a critical position opened up in a regulatory department last year, a staffer was promoted to that job within one month -- 60 percent faster than the city’s average hiring time. But the process began years earlier. 

“Succession planning starts when an employee walks in the door,” said O’Bannon. “Otherwise, you lose valuable employee development time and your ability to retain potential future leaders.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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