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To Transform Government, Start With the People

Managing talent for tomorrow’s needs goes to the heart of building the government workforce of the future.

The IBM Center recently released Seven Drivers Transforming Government, a series of essays exploring key drivers of change in government. It is based on research and insights shared by current and former government officials. What follows is an edited excerpt from that report.

The forces disrupting the way government does business don’t just affect the way services are delivered or work is accomplished, they also have a tremendous impact on the men and women charged with executing agencies’ missions. It is critically important to emphasize the role government workers play in achieving outcomes. As such, government leaders must establish new ways to organize, recruit, develop, manage and engage people to build the government of the future.

A recent white paper from the National Academy of Public Administration, No Time to Wait: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century, finds that, “There is no time to wait. The nation’s problems are too urgent. We need to build a human capital system that meets the needs of the nation’s 21st century government    and we need to start now.” The report posits that the current federal human capital system—from recruiting, training and retention to retirement—must be modernized, refreshed, and reinvigorated to meet today’s public-sector needs.

Multiple Challenges

An engaged workforce drives productivity, quality, and performance. The government of the future requires skilled leaders and front-line staff to make effective decisions and execute priorities. As the government’s needs change, talent acquisition must step up to meet those needs. In addition, an aging workforce and changing demographics require leaders to identify new and innovative processes to engage and replenish the federal agencies’ talent pool.

For the foreseeable future, most agencies will continue to operate with limited resources. Leaders will need to identify effective ways to manage and lead a blended workforce where civil servants are joined by contractors, grantees, and others in developing and delivering programs and services.

In addition, artificial intelligence has the potential to transform workplaces into places where employees wield cross-functional skills and work in tandem with smart machines. Bill Eggers and Peter Viechnicki, in What the Future of Artificial Intelligence in Government Could Look Like, identify the potential promise of AI in reducing or even eliminating time-intensive, administrative work across government. Staff could then devote their time to performing more meaningful work, focusing on creative projects and working directly with citizens. However, the authors acknowledge that truly achieving the benefits of AI will require more government employees to have technical skills and experience in things such as data analytics and designing human-to-machine interfaces.

Advances in technology, changes in workforce demographics, and the resulting opportunities for new management approaches combine to shift the culture and landscape in which agencies operate in fundamental ways. In the IBM Center report Growing Leaders for Public Service, Ray Blunt finds that growing the next generation of public service leaders stands as the most critical responsibility of senior public service leaders today—while also among the most uneven and least understood efforts carried out across federal agencies. This goal of managing talent for tomorrow’s needs goes to the heart of building the government workforce of the future.

Talent Management Matters

Skilled leaders determine organizational success. Doug Brook and Maureen Hartney in the IBM Center report Managing the Government’s Executive Talent, place an even finer point on this tenet. The report notes that investing time and resources in talent management has improved mission, managerial, political, and economic outcomes in both the public and private sectors. Effective leaders can set direction by providing vision, allocating resources and building a culture of ethics and trust. This frame enables leaders to guide results across the talent “value chain”— in which organizations improve processes to recruit, hire, compensate, onboard, train, manage, evaluate, develop and separate/retire a productive workforce. In addition, a well-implemented performance management cycle that includes strategy, resources, operations, execution and evaluation can foster talent at all levels of the workforce.

Agency leaders must build and manage a workforce that moves at the speed of change. Government leaders can use the very technology that drives this change to identify the right people with the right talent to do the most effective job. Using talent acquisition analytics, leaders can more effectively allocate resources, form effective teams, and redefine work. That said, the federal hiring process too often is a stumbling block. To acquire needed talent, federal agencies need a hiring process that is applicant-friendly, flexible, and meets policy requirements, such as merit-based hiring. In recent years, the OPM has launched several initiatives and tools aimed at addressing federal hiring challenges. Since 2014, OPM has led the People and Culture Cross-Agency Priority Goal intended to create a culture of excellence and enable agencies to hire the best talent.

Numerous strategies can help government overcome existing barriers:

  • Reform antiquated policies and processes. An important component in this process is hiring authority—the laws, executive orders, or regulations that allow an agency to hire into the federal civil service. Agencies continue to call for more flexibility within the Civil Service system. The rapid hiring successes of the U.S. Digital Service and 18F for competitive talent can provide lessons. Longer term, the federal government will need to find more innovative ways to exploit non-standard work arrangements as embodied in the gig economy.
  • Make human resources a strategic priority. To make progress, HR staff must drive a culture that fosters collaboration with hiring managers. Agency leadership needs to support this process, linking such collaboration with performance assessments of hiring staff and executives.
  • Embrace data and analytics. Federal agencies have large volumes of hiring, candidate, and related data that present opportunities for analysis, insight and organizational improvements. Generally, the data sits untapped or in unused reports. Gaining insight on human capital data yields a competitive workforce advantage to hire, develop and retain the best talent possible—which can drive agency mission success. Expanding the use of “people analytics” to inform workforce strategy, from planning to strategic recruitment to onboarding and retirement, can help to meet agency mission outcomes. For example, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey contains data that could provide insight into enhancing employee engagement and hiring.
  • Be proactive in recruiting future government leaders. Government has a lot to offer as an employer—a sense of purpose, a mission that matters, serving the public with integrity, interesting work, internal mobility, and job variety. Showcasing this story gives agencies a labor market advantage.
  • Increase the use of subject matter experts in assessing applicants. Effectively evaluating job applicants helps HR teams avoid costly mistakes. Managers and HR specialists should collaborate to create assessment strategies, design rating tools, and identify experts who can assist HR at various phases of the application review and assessment process (including determining minimum qualifications, rating and ranking, and selection).

Engaging, Training, and Developing Talent

Hiring the right people with the right skills represents only half of the effort in building the workforce of the future. Agencies also need to keep talented employees from leaving and develop their skills. When budgets are tight, training is often cut. Such decisions impact employee engagement and development. Government leaders need to identify new and less costly ways to offer technical training for their people. Advances in technologies, remote learning platforms, and interactive web-based learning all offer opportunities to provide training that can help agencies and employees grow at minimal cost.

Building the future workforce represents a strategic priority for all levels of organizational leadership. Recognizing this reality also intuits a new kind of dynamic, team-centric, and connected government workforce, with leaders and staff keeping pace with technology, adapting to the disruption of the digital economy, and recognizing that a shifting demography calls for new ways of leading. Success rests on creating a culture that values and engages people in meaningful ways while also leveraging technology, data, and new processes to improve government operations and provide employees with the tools for success.

Michael J. Keegan is the IBM Center for The Business of Government’s leadership fellow.  He also hosts the IBM Center’s weekly radio show, The Business of Government Hour.