Sloughing Off the Government Stereotypes

What are CIOs doing to lure millennials into government IT?

by / July/August 2017
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Government CIOs across the board are being forced to confront the retirement wave that’s about to decimate their ranks. But does the next generation of IT pros want the jobs their parents and grandparents are leaving behind?

We hit the streets of Sacramento, Calif., to ask young tech talents poised to take over the workforce whether they would go to work for government, and took that feedback to state CIOs gathered in late April for the NASCIO Midyear Conference. Here's what they said.

Agile in Action

Montana CIO Ron Baldwin has a son who’s a millennial. “He had a stint in government for a little over a year and then moved on,” Baldwin said. “He has some of the same comments, some of the same frustrations, so I understand it from a personal perspective.”

In Montana, at least part of the solution lies in agile development methodologies, used by Baldwin’s 50-strong team of application developers. “You’re not just a programmer that’s sitting in a cubicle in a dark area somewhere, never talking to someone all day, but rather you’re in a team environment, you’re exchanging ideas. It’s dynamic; it’s inspiring,” he said.

Nebraska CIO Ed Toner also pointed to agile as a powerful tool in millennial recruitment. He’s got a partnership with a local community college that’s bringing in interns who are learning agile in school and using it to run the state’s enterprise content management (ECM) system. And they’ve never used agile’s forefather — waterfall development. These same interns go back to their campuses to spread the word and bring in the next wave of talent for the ECM and other areas.

“They just sit down with their peers and they say, ‘This is what I enjoy about working for the state, this is the freedom I’m being given at the state. Here’s some of the applications we use at the state, here’s some of the things that we’re actually doing,’” Toner explained. The group, just down a flight of stairs from Toner’s fourth-floor office, has logged more than 20,000 development hours to date.

CIOs embracing agile seem to have instilled a culture of flexibility in their organizations — a quality young tech workers would likely appreciate.

“Let’s all be flexible here. Let’s know that this is the 21st century, we have the ability to be a virtual team. We can Skype into a meeting, we can participate effectively that way,” Baldwin said. “If we bring those things together, I think we will continue to advance the workforce in government where it can attract — it will attract — a more modern workforce.”

Leaving 8 to 5 Behind

In Wyoming, CIO Tony Young (formerly deputy chief of staff to Gov. Matt Mead) said he’d recently lost a handful of staff members to companies with remote work policies. While the state does offer telecommuting in some cases, he acknowledges that there’s room for improvement. Personnel policies need to adapt to enable government to be more competitive with what the private sector can offer, he said. “We’re doing the best we can to move that forward.”

Telework proved to be the solution to space constraints faced by CIO James Collins in Delaware. Rather than augment office space to accommodate more staff, they carefully reviewed job classifications to see which duties didn’t necessarily need to be done in the office. “If anybody should be moving forward with enabling employees to work from anywhere, anytime, from any device, it’s us,” he said. Now certain employees work remotely on a part- or full-time basis. Space problems? Solved.

Many other states offer telework as well — staff who work from their home base in another state, even. Georgia has an entire group within IT that works remotely. Missouri’s had a remote work pilot in place for several years, according to Acting CIO Rich Kliethermes. “We try to use it strategically where we can,” he said. “It’s not just about seeing the back of our employees’ heads.”

Help Wanted

Washington CIO Michael Cockrill has to contend with the fact that all the major players in Silicon Valley also have offices in Seattle, a mere 60 miles from the state capitol in Olympia.

“My competition is all using the same language and my job descriptions are: Come and be an ITS4,” he said. To say that traditional government job classifications cater to an insider audience is an understatement. “We’ve spent a lot of time rewriting all of our job descriptions and our job roles and re-baselining those so that we can actually recruit in a way that makes sense to the people that are reading the recruitment,” Cockrill added. He’s on the right track. After all, a jobs website is often a prospect’s first exposure to a potential employer.

And once a millennial is entertaining the idea of government work, nothing can kill the idea more quickly than requirements they can’t meet. For example, what if they have the necessary education but don’t yet have the experience?

“They would go get all this education or they would come through some accelerated IT training program, and then they couldn’t meet our requirements so they couldn’t work for us,” explained Delaware’s Collins. His solution was to create a new level of IT position — associate level — that would get those skilled employees in the door to do hands-on work alongside more senior staff.

“We’re growing some talent, and I’ll tell you, we have had great results,” he said.

Location, Location, Location

Something as simple as the physical environment in which work is done can have a profound impact on how employees feel about their job. Some CIOs told us it turns off candidates who visit state IT shops for interviews. The days of the quiet beige cubicle farm may be dwindling.

Ed Toner’s ECM team was given the freedom to make their own decisions about their workspace. They found that a more open environment was more conducive to the collaborative nature of their agile development process. “They knocked down all the walls, they put themselves into pods,” he said.

Washington’s workforce efforts include a handful of experiments with strict performance measures in place to assess impacts. Once such pilot granted freedom to employees to design a better workspace, transitioning from a traditional cubicle setup to an alternative arrangement that includes desks, a lounge area, a whiteboard table with raised chairs — a total of five different spaces in all for 12 employees within an area that used to accommodate eight cubicled employees.

Aside from the “startup” feel evoked by the new arrangement, the state is measuring tangible results like the impact on repetitive stress injuries, collaboration and productivity.

“We’re spending time running real experiments with the larger goal of bringing in new people, but because it’s a state environment, you have to prove that you’re doing it better … not just ‘Isn’t this space cool?’”

Prepping the Pipeline

Maine CIO Jim Smith is realistic about the changing nature of the workforce. Young people don’t tend to remain too long at the organization where they started their career. But the state has an internship program that’s helping fill the gaps left by retiring baby boomers — 70 percent of interns end up with full-time positions.

“The era of the lifelong IT career employee is probably over. We think interns will come in and stay for three or four years, but … they’ll get such a breadth of experience that they’ll get a wonderful jumping off point,” Smith said. But even with the shorter tenure, there’s value to be gained on both sides. “We’re learning from them and they’re learning from us, and it’s actually kind of exciting.”

Many state IT leaders have established relationships with local colleges and universities in which students can get in on the ground floor of new government initiatives. In Kansas, CITO Phil Wittmer is building a consolidated, cloud-based help desk and he’s looking to local institutions to help staff it. He’s hopeful, too, that new transparency and mobile initiatives will help entice the younger generation to consider state government IT work.

“We think that will be very attractive for some of those folks to come work for government doing some leading-edge things in Kansas,” he said.

The Door Is Open

State CIOs bristle a bit at the accusation that there’s no place for new ideas in government. In fact, most are actively working against the stereotype. Colorado Deputy CIO Brenda Berlin described “rapid innovation projects” in the state, where a contest encourages staff to bring forward ideas for improvements.

As for innovation, Utah’s Mike Hussey offers an open invitation. “If they have some thoughts on how we might improve, I would always be a listening ear to hear what people have to say,” he said. “Come on in sometime and we’ll show you around and show you the great things we’re doing.”

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.