Government is approaching a workforce dilemma, one that has been long in the making and which the COVID-19 crisis has made even more urgent: whether to initiate badly needed but internally unpopular changes in how government work is performed and managed, or to continue to rely on antiquated practices.

Failing to confront this dilemma could undermine performance at a time when efficient, effective government is needed more than ever. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it recently in introducing his state's fiscal 2021 budget, "This is a moment in history unlike any other, and government needs to function and deliver results. …"

Delivering results will, of course, be all the harder in a time of plummeting tax revenues and unexpected and unreimbursed pandemic-related expenditures, which have already cut state and local government employment by more than 1.5 million jobs. An analytics firm predicts that 3 million more state and local positions could be lost in coming months, including those of first responders as well as employment in social services, sanitation, health care and other vital public services.

Despite investments in technology, government remains dependent on its people and their capabilities. When urgent situations arise, public employees prove again and again that they are capable of impressive accomplishments. Creating work environments that support high performance has been a theme in other sectors for more than two decades.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted several workforce problems that together will make it difficult, if not impossible, to meet the public's expectations without a comprehensive rethinking of government's people management practices:

• Government was experiencing talent shortages before the current crisis. The shortages were triggered by demographic trends, the emergence of new skill requirements and a tight labor market, among other factors. These shortages will remain after the pandemic.

• Where governments are still hiring, filling vacant positions that can't be cut, business closings and layoffs in other sectors are likely to trigger increased applications for public-sector jobs. However, former private-sector employees who find themselves dissatisfied with their government experience may opt to return to their former employers. That's costly for governments.

• Few elected officials have experience managing large groups of employees. They ran for office because of public policy concerns, not improved management. And political differences often block efforts to change antiquated civil service laws.

A report from the National Academy of Public Administration decried government's all-too-common "culture of compliance . . . where meeting the requirements of the rules has become more important than delivering value to taxpayers." Civil service rules contribute to that culture and are a barrier to change, given that an entrenched principle is that employees should be treated the same regardless of their contributions.

• The typical jurisdiction's workforce is aging, with many employees within a decade of retiring. They are accustomed to working in a compliance culture. There are a number of reasons people resist change, but one that is all too common in government is distrust of elected officials.

• Surveys show that interest in public-sector careers is declining among young Americans. The perceived qualities of a government job are misaligned with their interests. Meanwhile, public employers too often rely on antiquated systems for hiring, training and career management. The George Floyd protests are likely to intensify this lack of interest.

For decades public employers have operated with people management policies and practices that ignored what was happening in labor markets and what in other sectors has been a revolution in the way work and workers are managed. The public administration academic community largely ignores workforce management.

But in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, long-needed changes have been prompted in the government work management paradigm that are closer to what is now common in the private sector. Working remotely, for example, changes the supervisor-employee relationship; they now have to agree on what needs to be accomplished, and employees have more autonomy in how they achieve results.

In addition, the need for front-line workers to respond to coronavirus hot spots means more flexibility in staffing; those workers' counterparts in back-room administrative jobs have learned they are less important. Professional expertise is more highly valued; commitment and high performance are valued; agility and problem-solving skills are valued. It's no longer a "do-as-you're-told-and-follow-the-rules" work environment. Heroic efforts and results are recognized.

The pandemic also has triggered new roles for human resources specialists: working with managers to strengthen relationships with remote workers; keep those still on the job healthy; maintain morale; and, where layoffs are necessary, take the lead in identifying the individuals agencies can — and can't — afford to lose.

It's fully possible to transition permanently to a work environment and culture that both reduces labor costs and supports improved performance. In the late 1980s, American companies were confronted with low-cost global competition that triggered a revolution in workforce management that unleashed organizational energy.

The lessons learned are readily available to the public sector, and the most recent large-scale success story in government is the state of Tennessee. The state's reform strategy, a transformation of its civil-service system encompassing goal-based management and pay for performance, was initiated by then-Gov. Bill Haslam shortly after his inauguration in 2011 and led by Rebecca Hunter, who was then the state's HR commissioner.

HR expertise is central to reforms like Tennessee's, but changes on that scale are possible only if HR partners effectively with elected officials, executives and managers. When the end of the pandemic crisis is in sight, HR will be expected to lead in moving to a new normal. That would be an ideal time to ask managers and employees for input, to understand what's working and what's not. They want to contribute and to have their value recognized. It's an opportunity to address problems and transition government permanently to practices that support better performance.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.