Rebuilding Government as a Purpose-Driven Organization

An agency’s purpose should be the foundation for workforce management.

The response to the pandemic has prompted a growing number of business leaders to rethink the narrow economic rationale for their organizations. It's captured by the phrase “purpose-driven” and defined in a values statement: [Companies] “exist not solely to maximize profit or increase shareholder value but equally to make a lasting, beneficial impact on the world. Purpose-driven businesses measure success based on how significant an impact they have on the specific global issues they’re trying to influence.” Stated differently, a societal purpose is more important than maximizing profits.

An obvious point is that the statement also describes clearly the reason government agencies exist. It’s important because anecdotal evidence—it’s too early for solid research—suggests this still new philosophy contributes to a company’s success and, more important, that it boosts recruiting and retention and improves employee engagement. That is important to an organization’s performance. It’s something several agencies have recently downplayed but should be central to workforce management.

A 2018 Harvard Business Review article, “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization,” highlights the importance of re-gaining agreement on government’s purpose. Reading the article in the context of what’s transpired over the past four years makes it clear government's purpose has become somewhat blurred; government’s “shareholders” and its employees have lost something important. Quoting from the article, having a purpose “explains how the people involved . . . are making a difference, gives them a sense of meaning, and draws their support.”

The argument is closely related to “public service motivation,” the phrase adopted by public administration researchers “that explains why individuals have a desire to serve the public and link their personal actions with the overall public interest.” That argument was first voiced three decades ago but has never had a noticeable influence on human capital policies or workforce management.

The purpose argument represents a radical change for business. The classic view is that employees are “self-interested agents” whose work effort and cooperation depends on the level of compensation. Basically, employers purchase labor by the hour; workers work for the pay. It’s strictly contractual.

That view, however, fails to recognize that “work” can be highly satisfying. For many, work gives their life purpose. That’s reflected in the long hours and commitment of the frontline workers involved in treating COVID-19 patients. It’s also reflected in the work of many government employees. 

Now government is about to undergo an abrupt, significant change in management philosophy. President Trump’s words and actions have disparaged civil service. Convincing job seekers to work for the federal government has been a tough sell. In contrast, President-elect Biden stated in a speech, “Dedicated public servants are the lifeblood of democracy.” The Biden presidential transition website notes that “government should serve as a role model for employers to treat their workers fairly.” 

Biden is correct: Government should be a role model. Agencies will need to consider how fair treatment is defined, specifically how performance—both good and bad—is recognized. Agencies also need to rebuild an engaged, committed workforce. The onus for fair treatment as well as increasing employee engagement is on agency managers and supervisors. The problem is complicated by the pandemic and remote working. That gives new emphasis to maintaining trust and coaching, and to the training for managers.

A number of experts have posted proposals to “repair” the damage of Trump’s personnel policies. Before that can happen, it will be important to assess the damage and the unprecedented workforce challenges. A vital step is documenting the staffing problems—vacancies, anticipated retirements, skill shortages, early turnover problems. It was reported that government had more than 18 million applicants this year but in the 2018 Federal Workforce Priorities Report, over half the “agencies encountered difficulties with recruiting and hiring personnel.” Specific staffing problems by occupation and location need to be documented. It would also be useful to complete a comprehensive analysis showing how federal salaries compare with market pay levels. The data reported in Federal Salary Council reports have no credibility. Until agencies understand the reasons for staffing problems, it will be impossible to solve them.

A related and largely unreported problem is the early turnover of new hires. Government cannot rebuild if new hires quit after working for a few months. The reasons need to be understood and problems addressed. Dissatisfied workers adversely affect the morale of co-workers. It’s costly. 

That is not a time for business as usual. The repair recommendations would improve the nuts-and bolts of federal workforce management. Understanding the problems is essential; the better practices are well documented and available to government. But something more is needed. Government’s brand as an employer has been damaged. Fixing that should be a priority.

The importance of remaking government’s brand as an employer was highlighted as the No. 1 recommendation in a recent report from the National Academy of Public Administration, “Modernizing and Reinvigorating the Public Workforce: An Agenda for 202.” 

“RECOMMENDATION 1: Building interest in public service and government as a career. 

Interest in public service is a crucial driver of successfully recruiting new civil service workers. Even students graduating from Public Administration programs often conclude that their best career options lie in the private sector or in nongovernmental organizations. Federal agency recruiting typically does not include paid advertising, and virtually no advertising is done to spark interest in federal jobs.”

Actually, the advertising statement is not entirely accurate. The military has frequently advertised general career options. The Army has a marketing arm, the Army Marketing and Research Group, that serves that role. 

It’s been a while since I watched one of the Army’s ads but the goal was to highlight Army’s national defense purpose. The military services are clearly purpose-driven organizations—and that was emphasized in the ads. There of course have also been popular TV shows and movies about federal agencies. Each agency has an important story to tell. For government, advertising could be the only alternative capable of reversing the steady decline in public support. 

Limiting the public’s exposure to federal career opportunities on the USAJobs website is clearly not an effective way to help job applicants understand and appreciate the attraction of federal careers. There has to be a better way. Agencies would be rightly reluctant running those 60 second ads squeezed between ads for toilet cleaners and dog food but short, agency-specific videos similar to the military’s could be made available to local TV stations and to college employment counselors. Maybe the Army marketing group could contract to produce the videos.

Internally, to strengthen an agency’s purpose, the HBR article mentions several company practices: asking a small task force to develop a summary statement expressing the agency’s purpose, blending the purpose in training and onboarding sessions, reinforcing the message in town hall and culture building sessions. The new emphasis on video conferencing and communication provides a great forum to recognize teams and individuals whose accomplishments reinforce the purpose. Done effectively, the message should reinvigorate employee commitment.

In March, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service issued its final report, “Inspired to Serve.” In conclusion, the commissioners made an important statement:

“Incremental changes and small improvements are not sufficient to cultivate a culture of service. Bold action is required, and we call on the Congress and the President to invest in the American people and place the Nation on a trajectory to achieve the vision: every American, inspired and eager to serve.

“The Federal civil service personnel systems require urgent attention. The difficulties facing Government hiring are so severe that the Government Accountability Office identifies strategic human capital management as a “high risk” area in need of transformation if the Government is to work effectively and efficiently. Existing practices block younger Americans and workers with critical skills from entering public service and jeopardize the ability of Federal agencies to replenish their workforce in the face of a looming wave of retirements.”

The Commission’s recommendations are intended to be aspirational. Their statement is one that the incoming Biden administration should adopt.