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The Failure of Government's Post-COVID Imagination

Twelve lessons to guide the future of work.

The 9/11 Commission Report had a jarring conclusion: The core problems of the terror attacks stemmed from a “failure of imagination” in anticipating the risks the nation faced. Now, 20 years later, we’re falling into another failure of imagination, this time about the future of work in government. 

The “future of work” has received a great deal of attention, but most of the discussion in government has centered on getting feds back behind their desks. However, the issues at stake are far larger. Here are 12 lessons to guide the way.

1. Some jobs are never coming back to the office. A fascinating paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “the COVID pandemic accelerated the widespread adoption of technologies that enabled households to work from home, which, in turn, permanently raised the productivity of working from home relative to working at the office.” The productivity gains from work-at-home jobs are permanently changing the workplace.

2. Most employees would prefer a more flexible way of working. A McKinsey study found that more than half of workers would prefer a hybrid working model in the post-pandemic world. The most popular option is working at home at least three days a week. That’s especially the case for workers with young children, in part because daycare has been one of the biggest workplace casualties of the pandemic, “a bad situation made worse” by COVID-19, a paper in the journal Pediatrics reports. We can debate how best to fit these preferences to the government’s work and to the distinct missions of different agencies. Researchers and contract managers have very different options than airport screeners and forest rangers. But defining the future of work solely in terms of returning employees to February 2020 is to miss one of the biggest workplace lessons of the pandemic. 

3. The next generation of workers has very specific wants for the workplace. Gen Z will constitute 27% of the workforce by 2025. Gen Z workers, born between 1995 and 2009 (with no memory of 9/11), have very specific values and they are looking for jobs that capture and advance those values. It is always a breathtaking mistake to use a few short words to characterize any individual, let alone an entire generation. Those talking with Gen Z-ers about jobs, however, say that they often greatly value diversity, equity, inclusion, economic security, communication, and transparency. They want a stable work-life balance and 90% value a human touch in their work teams, beyond their eagerness for technology. This constellation of issues makes the generation very different from the ones that preceded it—and far different from the Boomers who are often making strategic hiring decisions. 

4. A workplace designed for lifetime careers won’t attract the most-needed workers. The federal government’s hiring processes are designed to sift through piles of applicants, with the goal of finding the most highly skilled workers interested in devoting their careers to government positions. That’s just not going to be attractive to future applicants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the average time on the job for all workers—in government and in the private sector—between the ages of 25 and 34 years is just 2.8 years. Many government managers quietly complain that they work hard to fill positions and train new employees only to see them leave within a few years. Indeed, the federal government’s turnover rate has more than doubled from 2016 to 2020. Given the penchant of Gen Z-ers to look for fresh opportunities, however, the workers who might be most attracted to the federal government’s career-long retirement model might be precisely the ones the government doesn’t really want: those not eager to take risks and who have few opportunities elsewhere. Solving this problem is going to require redefining the public service to embrace jobs in related private contractors and nonprofits—and enhancing federal jobs to make them more rewarding for even the newest employees.

5. There are exciting innovations in federal hiring that need to be supercharged. Here’s one example: the creation of a pool of pre-qualified applicants, so agencies can move fast when they have openings. Applicants often get overwhelmingly discouraged when they fill out applications, never hear back, and then have to do it all over again. Agencies are overwhelmed by the avalanche of applications they receive, many of which are from clearly unqualified individuals. Pooled hiring is better for applicants (they know quickly whether they are likely to find their way to the top of the hiring process) and it’s better for agencies (they can get the help they need far more quickly from the pre-approved list).

6. We shouldn’t go back to “normal” for most work anyway. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb suspects that COVID-19 is likely to be a “persistent menace.” He argues that we need to adapt “our work and leisure activities to turn an omnipresent virus into a manageable risk,” especially by expanding telework that would allow employees—and employers—to feel comfortable enough with telework to make it a productive option when this virus—or a new one—rears its head.

7. Even if we could return to “normal,” it would be a mistake—the world is changing so fast. Azeem Azhar argues in a new book, The Exponential Age, that technology is accelerating the transformations in business and politics. “An inflection point has been reached, and we are witnessing our systems transforming before our very eyes,” he writes. When we look to government’s role, it’s clear that driving into the future based on the realities we knew in the pre-pandemic age is like steering down a highway at 85 mph by looking in the rear-view mirror. 

8. There’s a growing gap between the public and private sectors in managing these issues. In his new book, The Raging 2020s, Alec Ross contends that the gap between business and government is growing, and government is being left behind. A recent Deloitte study by William D. Eggers, John O’Leary, and Amrita Datar concluded, “Perhaps nowhere is the gap between the public sector and the private sector greater than in workforce management.” Government needs to run to catch up.

9. There’s hope in data and artificial intelligence. A huge problem in government’s hiring is that it takes about 98 days on average to bring on a new employee, about three times as long as in the private sector—and far longer than applicants, strapped with college debt, can afford to wait. Artificial intelligence, however, can not only help hiring managers sort through stacks of applications far more quickly. It can also level the playing field to make the hiring process fairer and more inclusive. Technology has been rolled out as a solution for just about everything, such as using a 3D printer to build new homes at “half the time for half the price.” But when it comes to vastly speeding up federal hiring, creating better matches between the jobs applicants want and what the government needs, bringing a new generation of workers into government to replace retiring Boomers, and increasing the federal government’s diversity, AI presents enormous—and mostly untapped—opportunities.  

10. What matters most is mission, not process. Most of the time, attention to federal hiring problems focuses on how to tweak the nuts and bolts of the hiring process. What we most need, however, is a laser-like focus on mission. Making that Job One, and driving the federal government’s human capital down that road, is the key to reimagining the future. 

11. Future federal jobs won’t be defined by agencies or offices but by purpose and networks. The pandemic has made clear that thinking within the boundaries of agencies is crippling to our response. The connections among federal, state, and local public health agencies, along with links to private pharmacies and neighborhood nonprofits, is not just a one-time way of getting the job done—but the way that most jobs in the future will be accomplished. After 9/11, we all learned about the importance of “connecting the dots.” The next phase of work will be connecting the dots on hyperspeed—with the purpose, not organizational boundaries, shaping the work.

12. Outcomes, not authority, will shape the way people work. We’ve gone more than a century with chain-of-command authority and hierarchy shaping both where we work and how we work. Those patterns are obsolete. What we need is a hard nosed focus on results to define how we do what we do—and to make sure that what we need is what gets done.

These steps certainly don’t cover everything we need to do to prevent a failure of imagination from blinding us to the challenges that the changing nature of work presents for us. Fresh and imaginative steps, however, can ensure that the government we’ll need for the future is the government we’ll have.

Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.