Shortcomings of Sharing
For all its benefits, cross-sourcing employees has its drawbacks. For example, two individuals came to Charlotte to work on a utilities project. They were extremely well received, Stovall said, but one of the two people was later offered a promotion back in the county. As a result, Charlotte had to reconfigure the project and “backfill the position with a city resource person,” Stovall said, — an unanticipated snafu that took nearly two months to sort out and ultimately derailed the project timeline.
Even Mecklenburg County encountered pitfalls as outsourcing its own employees put a strain on the organization’s truncated resources. “There has been more demand placed on the county for IT projects and business process consultants,” said Simmons. “Sometimes we can’t meet the demand that’s being asked of us right now.”
“This kind of an arrangement is a compromise,” Woyzbun said. “You’re selecting from a limited pool of people who may or may not fit the job and who may or may not be particularly excited about the opportunity [to work elsewhere]. It’s an OK short-term resolution during the economic problems, but is it a longer-term solution?”
Nor should CIOs assume that shifting IT professionals from one government agency to another is a seamless transaction. “You still screen employees to determine if they’re a good fit for your team and you still have to write a contract,” said Johnson. “It’s hysterical to me how hard it is for one government agency to contract with another.”
The Right Approach
Luckily there are a number of factors that can make for a successful cross-sourcing strategy. For starters, Simmons said it’s critical that CIOs communicate the benefits of the arrangement openly and honestly to all employees.
“We told our employees we have an opportunity to strengthen our partnership even more with the city and with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, to save jobs, generate some revenue and get some extra training funds back into our budgets,” Simmons said. “And they said, ‘OK, that sounds like a good idea. I’m for it.’ No one has resisted or pushed back.”
Picking the right employees to outsource is also crucial. “You have to put your best foot forward,” said Simmons. “You’re trying to strengthen your partnership [with another agency]. I wouldn’t put someone there who’s not about change and trying to do something different.” For this reason, Simmons said she “tried to choose the most experienced employees who would see this as a great opportunity.”
So too can the proper training get cross-sourced employees up to speed on a new department’s inner-workings. “Like any major project,” said Johnson, “you have to take employees and explain the context in which they’re going to work, our structure, how we get work done and the politics among our various groups.”
Shifting employees from one government agency to another will create challenges. But with the proper communication skills, interagency relations and commitment to knowledge retention, more and more government agencies may just realize that they’re better off loaning than laying off their employees.
Cindy Waxer is a journalist whose articles have appeared in publications including The Economist, Fortune Small Business, CNNMoney.com, CIO and Computerworld.