Many state and local government workers face a grim reality these days.

During the recession, states and localities shed hundreds of thousands of jobs. In the coming years, they’re slated to lose even more veteran workers to retirement. That could mean more work for fewer and less experienced employees, potentially dealing a blow to morale.

Governing conducted a survey of senior state and local officials assessing the current state of the public-sector workforce, examining a range of issues crucial to public employees. The responses paint a portrait of a sector hard-hit by budget cuts, with many lamenting pay freezes and a lack of advancement opportunities. But the news isn’t all bad. Governments made great strides in advancing new and improved workforce initiatives, giving plenty of reasons for optimism.

Overall, employees seem fairly content, despite the hardships of the past few years. Of those surveyed, 78 percent reported being somewhat or very satisfied with jobs and working conditions. The overwhelming majority similarly thought they could make a difference through their work, and 73 percent felt valued by their employers at least somewhat.

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Keeping workers engaged is one of the more important factors in uniting a workforce, but only half of survey participants reported satisfaction with their organization’s employee engagement efforts. Bob Lavigna, the University of Wisconsin’s director of human resources, says that while there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, senior leadership must play a key role in ensuring workers stay fully engaged.

One such way is to incorporate their feedback in decision-making. The cities of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Boulder, Colo., for example, used peer-review teams as part of the budgeting processes. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to improve the effectiveness of government if we can move the needle of engagement,” says Lavigna, author of Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance.

Of course it’s easier for employees to stay engaged if work doesn’t clash with personal life. Governments received high marks in this area, with 86 percent expressing satisfaction with work/life balance. Use of telecommuting--one common measure promoting flexibility--continues to spread across all levels of government, particularly in information technology and program areas where it’s most practical.

As departments trimmed budgets, some sought ways to innovate, turning to workers for ideas. More than three-quarters of survey respondents felt encouraged to innovate, but many governments could do more to motivate employees. Only 61 percent of respondents said their work units rewarded creativity and innovation.

Incentives are helpful because, as Lavigna says, workers too often see only the risks of implementing new ideas. “There’s a fear that if they try something and it doesn’t work, they’re going to read about it in the newspaper,” he says.

A handful of survey participants expressed frustration around a lack of merit-based pay, a barrier that’s more difficult for governments to overcome in an era of cutbacks. It’s also hard for many to move up the career ladder. Sixty-four percent of respondents were somewhat or very dissatisfied with their organization’s advancement opportunities.

That could change in the coming years, however, as governments will be dealing with a significant number of vacancies created by the impending wave of baby boomer retirements, and many are preparing for that now.

The survey found governments must also work harder to attract young talent, which can require new and often unconventional approaches to recruiting. For example, Louisiana’s civil service department began posting videos on YouTube last year, providing prospective employees an overview of what they’ll encounter working in certain jobs. The videos proved particularly useful in advertising high-turnover positions, such as juvenile justice specialists, which Louisiana officials report has saved the department time and money.

In the Governing survey, 62 percent reported their work unit was able to recruit new hires with the right skills.

Despite the hurdles, many states and localities are finding new ways to address their challenges head on. The August issue of Governing features a summary of some of the more innovative practices being implemented across the country.

The following tables show results of a survey of a random sample of 107 senior state and local government officials conducted June 4 - June 25. Participants were members of the Governing Exchange research community and are not representative of all public sector employees.

Overall, how satisfied are you with your job/working conditions?

Response Percentage
Very satisfied 38%
Somewhat satisfied 40%
Somewhat dissatisfied 16%
Very dissatisfied 6%


Please rate your satisfaction regarding your organization’s performance in providing the following:

Rating Very Satisfied Somewhat satisfied Somewhat dissatisfied Very dissatisfied
Work/life balance 36% 50% 11% 3%
Competitive pay 12% 38% 37% 12%
Competitive benefits 45% 31% 17% 7%
Promoting employee morale 13% 36% 30% 21%
Employee engagement 17% 33% 30% 21%
Advancement opportunities 10% 25% 40% 24%
Diversity 24% 50% 20% 6%
Training/development 22% 46% 27% 5%


Using the statements below, please identify what is permitted or available for employees within your organization:

Benefit Yes No Don't know
Flex time 78% 21% 1%
Telecommuting 41% 57% 2%
Regular Training 74% 26% 0%
Mentoring 40% 45% 15%
Employee Recognition Programs 62% 36% 3%
Performance-based awards or bonuses 23% 75% 2%

Using the statements below, please describe your feelings about your job/role and overall working environment:

Work Environment Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
I feel I can make a difference by working here 66% 25% 7% 1%
I feel valued here 41% 32% 17% 10%
My work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills 19% 43% 26% 12%
Promotions in my work unit are based on merit 19% 36% 25% 20%
I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things 48% 29% 16% 7%
Creativity and innovation are rewarded 21% 39% 25% 14%
In my organization, leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce 19% 39% 21% 21%

Governing Exchange is a research community of more than 1,400 state and local government officials and employees. Those interested in signing up can join by registering online. Membership is free.