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Social Networking and Recruitment

Tough times and the growing need for innovation require the use of social media to attract the best and brightest.

A few weeks ago the government nearly shut down as the result of a "downsizing" fight that clearly isn't over. But whether you think government's too big or not, we must realize that governments -- like other institutions -- are only as good as the people we get to join them.

Historically, government has attracted the best and brightest because of the issues it addresses, like public safety, poverty and the environment. These issues are much more important than whether the 27th brand of minty toothpaste can be made profitable. True, governments haven't always offered great top-end salaries, but they've attracted talent by offering great problems to solve along with a combination of stable employment, and good benefit and retirement packages.

They did until this year, that is. It's now clear that government salaries, stable employment and strong benefit/retirement packages are under serious attack. As private spending rebounds, governments are finding it harder to compete for skilled workers. Some government technology workers, for example, are accepting 30 percent pay increases and moving to the private sector.

Is it time to rethink recruitment and take advantage of social networking?

The basic recruitment problem is getting the right skills applied to the right work. The nature of that work is changing, even in government. We're moving from success that depended mostly on routines to a greater reliance on innovation. As a result, we need government with flexibility and agility rather than rigid efficiency. We need an innovative military to respond to terrorism as well as conventional threats; and an innovative health care system to prevent as well as manage chronic disease. In the aggregate, we need government to "steer" competitive service providers rather than "row" a gargantuan public monopoly.

In short, tough times and growing needs for innovation require us to use social networking tools for recruitment for the following reasons:

  • Traditional networking has long been key for recruiting. We find out about jobs and get our most trusted recommendations from friends and acquaintances. But while neighborhood, college, and professional friends and associates remain critical, traditional networking in today's world won't be enough for the recruitment needs of governments.
  • Social networking tools have become powerful in many settings. The networking tools that facilitate socially generated content -- blogs, wikis and platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and GovLoop -- have grown enormously popular. Some 70 percent of all Web content is now produced through comments and interaction. Wikipedia for the public has sprouted Diplopedia for the State Department and GCPedia for the government of Canada.
  • Interactivity leads to engagement and results. What Web 2.0 offers is interactivity -- comments and other discussion -- not just the passive information of earlier Web or printed materials.
  • Friends are often the most important source of information. For discussions about job criteria and job opportunities, the experience and views of friends -- and friends of friends -- are easily interpreted, trusted and powerful sources of information.
  • We're just getting started. While Facebook, for example, attracts enormous attention, more than half of all governments still forbid access to it from work. The reality is that we have barely started to leverage social networking for recruiting.
For those governments that ARE turning to social networking for recruitment, the progress is promising. Based on the early lessons, what should we do? You can start with three simple guidelines:

  • Go where the potential recruits are. This has always been true, and justifies trips to universities, conferences and to governments that may now be laying off just the kind of people you need. More importantly, it also justifies a serious presence on social networking platforms. The Baltimore County Police Department, the U.S. State Department, Hong Kong and India are all recruiting on Facebook (500 million members). Missouri has produced interesting results recruiting through Second Life (20 million members), and many job-related discussion groups have emerged on both LinkedIn (100 million members) and GovLoop (42 thousand members).
  • Emphasize your core strength as a work and learning environment. You should present facts related to pay, work-life balance, stability, benefits and retirement; while these may be under attack, they're critical and still likely to compare well vs. competing private opportunities. Be sure to offer a multitude of chances to discuss the kinds of problems people can work on, the learning and career development you support, and the opportunities available for independent initiative. In a U.S. survey of 10,000 working professionals, half of the top-ranking 12 employers were focused on public problems, including the Department of State, the FBI, the CIA, NASA, Teach for America and the Peace Corps.
  • Leverage social networking for more than just external candidates and full-time jobs. The platforms and tools can be readily used for interns as well as full-time positions; internal as well as external candidates for promotions and re-assignments; project assignments as well as jobs to allow employees to network for project assignments; and education and training opportunities as well as jobs, as it may be more cost-effective to develop skills than to hire new people.
When my career was getting started, talented people wanted to work in government more than the private sector, and admission to the Harvard Kennedy School was more competitive than admission to the Harvard Business School. Now, after years of disdaining government, people with talent are again saying they want to work for the government -- on public problems. Granted, they often prefer the entrepreneurialism of start-up NGOs, but the focus is again on education, health care, human rights, energy and climate change, and the big problems that desperately need talent and creativity.

Can government recruit successfully in this environment? Though it will not be easy, the fundamental answer is yes, because we'll do a much better job with a little social networking help from our friends.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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