It’s Time to Make Government a Great Place to Work

Howard Risher has 40 years of experience as a consultant and HR executive with clients in every sector. He has published frequently in HR journals and websites.  He is the author or co-author of six book and a growing list of ebooks. The most recent is Building the Workforce Government Needs.  He is associated with Grahall Consulting Partners.

The first listing of the Great Places to Work® was released 30 years ago. Now there are similar lists for several industry groups along with lists of the best places for parents, women, millennials, and for diversity. There are also lists of the best hospitals and the best colleges. But nothing comparable exists for government at any level.

An exception is a listing posted by the Partnership for Public Service, “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government®’. However, it’s silent on an important thread highlighted in reports from other sectors – the linkage to performance. Annual surveys show federal engagement scores are well below the average private-sector employer. For state and local public employers, a pre-pandemic Gallup report found that low engagement levels “Cost U.S. Billions”. Only one public employer, the City of Centennial, Colorado, made the 2021 Gallup list of exceptional workplaces.

Another thread is the understanding that outdated work management practices have contributed to the Great Resignation. The studies often date to the years before the pandemic but there is no reason to expect a different conclusion — the best employers are more successful and have lower turnover. Gallup data showed engaged employees are “nearly 60% less likely” to look for new jobs – and take fewer sick days, make fewer mistakes, and are more productive.

Government is different in one key respect – public employers maintain traditional retirement programs with benefits significantly richer than in the private sector. Resigning before the ‘normal’ retirement date reduces benefits and imposes a more modest lifestyle for what on average will be another 20+ years. That makes an employee’s decision to retire far more difficult. However, when a dissatisfied or angry employee decides to stay, it can be troublesome.

The pandemic and working remotely disrupted working relationships throughout the world of work. The abrupt change and increased autonomy prompted millions to realize their jobs and careers were not fulfilling. They want something different. Employers that want to retain top talent and rebuild for the future realize traditional management practices need to change. A ‘new normal’ is emerging. Demographic trends that have created shortages in several prominent occupations complicate the problem. New skills like cybersecurity are in high demand. Public employers need to change if they hope to compete for needed talent.

Government Staffing Problems Could Get Worse rebuilding

A recent report from the MissionSquare Research Institute show public employees are as dissatisfied with the work experience as those in the private sector. A late 2021 survey shows 52% of state and local employees are “considering leaving their jobs voluntarily . . .” with 36% of the group planning to change jobs, 33% retiring, and 28% leaving the workforce entirely. The employees who would “like to leave the government sector entirely” stand at 25%.

Eight in 10 survey respondents “say the increase in number of people leaving voluntarily has put a strain on their workload.” That could explain why those planning to change jobs have increased steadily.

That’s clearly a problem but significantly it’s not a new problem. Staffing and low engagement levels have been problems going back at least a decade.

National employment data confirm state and local government’s staffing problems. At the end of 2019 state and local government employment totals, excluding education, were 2.707 and 6.596 million. At the end of 2021, the totals were 2.629 and 6.358. The headcount in local government education fell by roughly 300,000 (8.0 vs 7.7 million).

The Rockefeller Institute of Government claims “more people have left state and local government in the last two years than ever before . . . It has the potential to permanently reshape the future of public sector work.”

Significantly, public employers had lower rates of decline than private employers. The monthly losses in the private sector – resignations, retirements, layoffs, and deaths – were running above 3% (4+ million workers monthly) for the last quarter of 2021. For the federal government, the monthly rate was under 1% and in state and local government the monthly average was 1.1%.

That’s not the end of the story, of course. Now that employers, public and private, are asking or requiring employees to return to their workplaces, the resignations are likely to continue at some level. Reports show employees resist returning to the daily grind. Commuting often adds hours to the workday and increases daily costs. Parents with young children have renewed problems with childcare.

A tightly related issue is the level of retirements agencies will inevitably experience. The average age in government agencies is higher than in virtually any industry. Over 2 million government employees are age 55 or older. That’s 27% of the workforce.

To get ahead of this potential problem, it would be valuable to complete a workforce analysis by location, occupation, and in light of DEI concerns, by gender and race. Patterns in the metrics will help to anticipate where vacancies are likely. Employee surveys followed by local focus groups would also help to highlight issues that contribute to dissatisfaction. The purpose is to make leaders aware of where staffing problems are likely.

Resignations, vacancies, and disengaged employees are a local problem. Local managers need to take the initiative to address those problems. Ideally, managers and their people should work together to improve the work environment. Advisors should be available to facilitate the discussions.

A closely related staffing problem is the need to rebuild with young, well-qualfied job seekers. There is evidence careers in government are less attractive today. A pile of studies is available on the attributes in the work environment that new graduates are seeking. Recently hired new graduates decide quickly if they made a good job choice. It suggested HR reach out to them to discuss their experience in the hiring and onboarding process and the first few months on the job. The last thing any employer needs is hiring an applicant and having him or her quit in the first few months.

Turnover and vacancies are costly to employers – lower performance, delays, lost investment in training, time spent recruiting, etc. Possibly worse is having “actively disengaged” employees continue in a work group. Their rancor affects the morale and performance of the unit. The problems need to be addressed or the staffing problems could quickly get worse. Developing estimates of the costs should convince elected officials to invest in needed reform.

Practices Proven in the World’s Best Workplaces

A Fortune article, “Head, heart, guts and No BS”, captures the nature of the changes taking place in the 25 companies named as World’s Best Workplaces. The need to sustain profitability gives companies an ever-present reason to change but all employers have a need to maintain the staffing levels needed to satisfy stakeholder concerns. The phrase “leading with head, heart and guts” is the phrase used by the #1 employer on the list, the international shipping company, DHL.

On average, 85% of employees in the 25 ‘best’ companies say they experience well-being at work, and over 90% say they are proud of their employer and that management is honest and ethical in its business. The management philosophy and practices adopted by these companies would benefit every employer. Realistically those practices are feasible at minimal cost in every organization

A common practice in the best workplaces is “including employees in decision making that impacts them.” They allow the staff “to be entrepreneurial”. DHL. For example, grants employees “the autonomy and initiative to represent the company in a way they can feel proud of”. The company conducts global employee surveys “to assess employee trust across the company . . . and then relies on a “steering committee . . . to see what we can do better.”

On the U.S. list for 2022, Hilton hotels in #3, and Wegmans Food Markets is #4. Both rely heavily for their success on the way employees interact with customers. Wegmans (with 106 locations) has been at the highest levels on the lists for years, proving high pay and benefits are not essential. Notably, 93% of their Gen Z employees say it’s a great place to work.

The workforce strategy in Hilton and Wegmans can be adopted by any employer at a minimal cost. Both companies have multiple, relatively small staff locations which shift the focus from corporate leaders to local managers. It’s local managers who create a positive work environment.

Common themes in the practices of the best employers are trusting employees, listening to their ideas, a commitment to fair pay, and empowering them to make job-related decisions. The reports on the website, Great Places to Work, should be read by government executives as well stakeholders who know change is needed. The message from the Great Places website has been the same now for years.

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The core impediment to change at all levels of government are the vestiges of a management philosophy that emerged more than a century ago.


Stuck in the Past

The core impediment to change at all levels of government are the vestiges of a management philosophy that emerged more than a century ago. It reflects the way workers were managed in the early factories. The labor/management clashes through the first half of the century created a climate of mutual distrust that continues to trigger resistance to change. Trust is a key to a great workplace.

For decades employees had minimal discretion in how they did their jobs; industrial engineers dictated each work step as well as performance expectations. They controlled how work and workers were organized. Supervisors were responsible for assuring employees did what they were told. That placed the focus on those few who failed to comply. Unfortunately, that continues today.

Elected officials then and today run for office because of an interest in public policy issues. Few have experience as executives managing in large organizations. They need the support of staff with proven executive skills.

In the business world, the importance of maintaining adequate profitability is a goal highlighted by leaders and reinforced by prospective rewards at all levels of management. Business executives and managers are rewarded as a team for a company’s success. Rewards linked to that success make it easier to accept efforts to adopt new practices. That of course is missing in government.

Modest team or group rewards linked to needed change would serve to involve everyone in cooperating to institute change. Denver’s “Peak Performance” incentive system proved financial rewards can improve performance and save money.

Change began in the private sector as far back as the 1970s when the idea of autonomous work teams was tested by Saab and Volvo in Sweden. One of the first in the U.S. was Scott Paper which opened a new plant in Dover DE where the goal was to eliminate all managers. I had a chance to interview several of the initial employees. One thanked God for the chance to work there. I learned another had been quiet and reticent to voice her ideas but evolved to become a leader. In a supportive environment, employees will readily commit to their organization’s success.

With the 1990 recession, companies eliminated layers of management to cut costs which increased a manager’s ‘span of control’ and gave workers increased autonomy. Early in the decade the growing importance of knowledge jobs made corporate leaders aware that top down, close supervision inhibits an employee’s contribution. Today there are millions of workers who rarely meet with a supervisor. Only government sticks with 1940s workforce practices.

One of the few success stories is the reform initiative undertaken by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam when he took office in 2011. Reform extended over his two terms. His strategy is worth emulating.

Empowerment is the Current Buzzword

A thread common to the stories of organizations that transition to becoming ‘great places to work’ is adopting a strategy that frees employees from doing what they are told – that’s been described as a compliance culture – to one where they are encouraged to solve problems and trusted to make job-related decisions. That’s now captured with the construct, “Empowerment”.

A 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review, “When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn’t,” discusses why empowerment is important:

Managers “who were perceived as more empowering were more likely to delegate authority to their employees, ask for their input, and encourage autonomous decision-making. And they were more likely to have employees who were rated, by either their leader or colleagues, as being highly creative and good organizational citizens. Specifically, this type of leadership seems to encourage employees to generate novel ideas and think of new ways of doing things, and to help others in the workplace, volunteer for extra assignments, and to be willing to support their organization outside of an official capacity.”

The most important finding was: “When employees feel empowered at work, it is associated with stronger job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization.”

The authors noted two distinct psychological processes. 

  1. Empowered employees “felt a greater sense of autonomy or control in their work, they felt that their job had meaning and it aligned with their values, that they were competent in their abilities, and that they could make a difference.”
  2. Empowered employees “are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals, who are committed to meaningful goals and demonstrate initiative and creativity to achieve them.”

They found that empowerment had a stronger positive influence on the performance of less experienced employees. That’s a key issue for employers that want to attract Gen Z job seekers.

Last November the White House released the Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision, which recognized the importance of empowering employees, making it “Priority Area 1 — Strengthening and empowering the Federal workforce”.

The Vision is straight out of the textbooks on creating high-performance organizations. The statement expresses the management philosophy public employers should have adopted decades ago.

The statement, however, is silent on a core issue — the importance of managers in creating a workplace where everyone is valued and committed to achieving organizational goals. Gallup argues that “the employee experience begins and ends with the manager.” Prior to the pandemic, their research showed ineffective managers were the primary reasons employees quit.

A number of studies show the manager/employee working relationship is central to improved engagement and to better performance. Effective managers trust and empower their people to make job-related decisions.

All employees need to know what their manager expects. Increasingly employees are self-managed, but they always need an understanding of what they are expected to accomplish, how their performance will be assessed, etc. Technology makes it relatively easy to monitor progress.

Everyone benefits from ongoing feedback and coaching. It’s a standard practice in sports when players return to the bench. And of course, it’s important for everyone to learn a new skill. Managers also benefit and enjoy their role more when they serve as teachers instead of performance police.

The Biden-Harris statement is also silent on the time agencies will need to realize the transition to an empowered work climate. Developing essential skill sets and redefining working relationships will require possibly a full four-year term. Reform initiatives should start soon after an election.

The pandemic, remote work, and increased autonomy have made virtually every employer rethink how their people are managed. Empowerment has become almost faddish. As the HBR article emphasized, in other sectors leaders realized years ago that empowering employees – making better use of talent — leads to better results and to creating great places to work.

Going Forward

Government needs to change to enable government to compete for increasingly scarce talent. Change will be difficult to accept, especially for long service employees, but the importance of attracting and retaining Gen X and Gen Z job seekers makes change essential. It’s about shifting to work management practices that contribute, as the Great Places to Work has shown, to a sense of community, fairness, trust, innovation, and caring. The goal is to help employees feel their efforts are valued and contributing to the organization’s mission and purpose.

Executives and managers at all levels need to understand the vital role they play. In the new work environment, many will need to commit to developing a new skill set; their organizations need to provide the tools and support to help them make the transition. Again, guidance is readily available on websites like the Great Places to Work.

Employees and managers both need to feel they play essential roles. It’s incumbent on leaders to communicate why the organization and new work practices are important. They need to connect everyone’s efforts to satisfying the needs and expectations of agency stakeholders. That’s essential in an environment where many employees are working remotely. Technology facilitates the connection but leaders at all levels are the key.

Along with attracting new staff, the changes need to address the reasons employees decide to resign or retire. A simple but essential step is to bring employees together, using Zoom or similar system, if necessary, to discuss what’s distressing or causing anxiety. Regular surveys, possibly quarterly, could be useful. Technology facilitates ongoing communication. Everyone needs to understand the organization is committed to creating a better work environment.

An important step to attract qualfied talent would be visiting the better schools of government and arrange to meet with student groups. They have the best and only relevant view of government’s “brand” as an employer. HR specialists need to understand what would make agency career opportunities more attractive.

It would also be advantageous for one or more government associations like ASPA or IPMA-HR to commit to recognizing the Best Places to Work in Government. The success stories should be recognized as models for other employers. The Great Places to Work Institute has influenced workforce practices worldwide. It’s always valuable to celebrate and tell the stories of those organizations that are leaders in this post-pandemic era.

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