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Workforce Shortages Provide Opportunity to Rethink Service Delivery

Governments are struggling with high vacancy rates. Rather than trying to return to the pre-pandemic world, they should rethink how workers do their jobs to foster job satisfaction and more capable performance, an expert argues.

WHP trooper.jpg
A Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper at work. Like many government agencies, the patrol is struggling with a growing vacancy rate. (Facebook)
In  Brief:
  • The workforce challenge for governments is global.
  • The private sector is able to offer better pay and, increasingly, comparable or superior benefits.
  • Governments should think about improving both software and job descriptions to recruit and retain workers.

  • Wyoming doesn’t have a lot of people but it does have a lot of roads. There are 33,000 miles of roads in the state, but not enough troopers to keep good watch on all of them. At the start of the year, Wyoming had 52 vacant state trooper positions, a vacancy rate of exactly one in four. The full contingent would be 208, and there are vacancies for other positions in the highway patrol as well.

    That type of shortage is not at all unusual. Across the country, governments are struggling with workforce shortages due to turnover, resignations and retirements and the tight labor market.

    This problem is not limited to the U.S. One out of every four government workers will quit their jobs and head for the private sector this year in the 38 nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to a projection from Forrester Research.

    To gain perspective on the global government labor shortage, Governing spoke with Sam Higgins, principal analyst with Forrester. Here are edited excerpts from that interview:

    Governing: Here in the U.S., we’re seeing broad challenges for governments in terms of turnover and retention. Is that a challenge internationally as well?

    Sam Higgins: There's a real challenge with recruitment and onboarding. I think that's because we've tended to take a pretty traditional view of that, and training. With a lot of the tasks we give civil service workers, we don't give them a lot of great tools. If you look at the software that runs government, some of the software companies around government are not cloud-based. They've been around since the ’80s. You and I would look at it and just be horrified. And so there's a lot of technical debt in government from a software and technology perspective.

    The practical challenge is often there's just no support for recruitment or an onboarding process at all, which is often literally a manual process. There’s a need for leaders in government to ask themselves, where can I automate this process and support my civil servants with a process which will actually improve their productivity. The Defense Department in the U.S. is actually investing really heavily in technology in this onboarding space, and training and recruitment space.

    Governing: I was interested in your finding that people are leaving government work for the private sector in large part because of better benefits. At least in the U.S., traditionally one of the attractions of working for the government has been superior benefits.

    Higgins: For a lot of people, there’s pride that comes with working for government or being in government. There’s this whole notion of service and serving the public. That definitely has to be a motivator. Let’s face it, for some people, more remuneration and bigger total reward packages are available elsewhere.

    Now, on the other hand, you see headlines saying it's all over for free lunches and foosball for tech bros in Silicon Valley. But, more broadly, there have been some quite reasonable changes to total rewards packages for the broader working population, in order for the private sector to kind of become competitive amongst itself. And in doing that, they've indirectly had an impact on the public sector.

    Governing: What else should people in the public sector be thinking about in terms of competing in the marketplace, with private-sector companies also short of workers and happy to poach?

    Higgins: There’s only so many dials that we can turn, right? One of the things that I’ve been tracking is the four-day workweek and how that gets rolled out. That, to me, seems to be the only big opportunity to rethink work and benefits. Whenever we change these industrial relationships at the economywide level, around things like the 40-hour week, they have to be driven first and foremost by some sort of broader economic benefit.

    Why would you give people more time? When people have satisfaction at work, we know that productivity goes up, which is important for civil service delivery. If you're not getting paid enough, there's going to be other things that make you happy. I think the civil service has an opportunity to get a little bit ahead of the private sector on this. There has to be that productivity dividend, but otherwise, what's going to happen is your 25 percent vacancy rate is going to go up to like 40 or 50 percent.

    Governing: Have you looked at productivity rates for remote work among governments?

    Higgins: We’ve definitely looked into it. What impacts productivity is how people feel, and we definitely know that government workers are not as satisfied and not as productive.

    The workforce is made up of different groups. We’ve got a group of people in the civil service who are considered to be coasters. The proportion of coasters in the civil service is much higher than the private sector. But then another group are the rock stars — the teachers that have a YouTube channel and are really popular with the parents. Some of them get tired and have burned out, so they just sort of take the foot off the gas, they sit back and unfortunately put a drag on productivity.

    Governing: So, if you have a retention and recruitment problem and a productivity problem, what are the solutions?

    Higgins: There’s a scale problem with government. There aren’t a lot of businesses that have, in some cases, a responsibility to serve every single citizen in the nation. And they often do it at a ratio of customer to individual worker that is much, much, much, much, much greater than the private sector.

    If you can make people more productive, that has a really significant impact on service delivery and satisfaction for recipients, because of the scale. We’re talking tens of thousands of civil servants and teachers. If you can give even a 1 percent productivity boost to this group, that translates into thousands of people hours that you can give to students in classrooms, or minutes you can get to a location faster if you’re a first responder.

    Line-level civil servants can do really amazing things when they're given the tools. We have to make sure that not all the interesting work gets outsourced and goes out the door, so that we can offer not only an interesting package, but also interesting work. We don't want big government. What we want is capable government. Government that has decent depth of capability is in all of our best interests.
    Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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