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Workforce Disrupted: Major Changes Ahead for Public-Sector IT Workforces

The career public servant is a concept nearing extinction. Here's how CIOs are preparing for what's next.

by / March 28, 2016
Stu Davis, CIO, Ohio David Kidd

These days, IT employees might have a background in theater instead of computer science. They’re more likely than ever to be part-timers and short-timers instead of career public servants. Some of them are even configuring networks on a phone rather than a PC.

What, exactly, is going on here? 

These are all signs of the new normal for government IT departments. Public CIOs and their staffs face disruption from almost every angle — the long-anticipated baby-boomer retirement wave is beginning to crest, younger employees have new ideas about how and where they want to work, and rapidly evolving technology is rewriting the resume of typical tech workers. 

Those forces are driving CIOs to rethink everything from how they attract talent and what type of talent they really need, to their ratio of full-time to temporary employees.

“It’s a major challenge,” said Ohio CIO Stu Davis, of coping with both the state’s evolving IT needs and a changing market for technology employees. Davis was one of a dozen state and local CIOs interviewed last year about the future of the government IT department. Nearly all of them see major changes on the horizon for public-sector IT workforces.

Here are some of the big ones.

You’ll have fewer career public servants.

The days of the traditional government IT shop staffed with lifelong public servants may be numbered. As baby boomers exit the workforce, these organizations are being rebuilt to more easily expand and contract based on workload. 

In Austin, Texas, the concept is called “flexible sourcing.” As older workers head out the door, CIO Stephen Elkins said he’s evolving his staff from almost 100 percent full-time employees (FTEs) to a mix of full-time staff members, temporary workers and contractors. “We want to shift to maybe 70 to 80 percent FTEs and 20 to 30 percent other,” he said. The change is designed to help the city IT organization respond more nimbly to a fluctuating workload and evolving customer demands.

Austin, Texas, CIO Stephen Elkins

Elkins is one of several public CIOs who say they are adjusting their ratio of full-time to part-time staff.

A similar move is underway in Los Angeles County, where CIO Rich Sanchez also expects to rely more heavily on contract resources. “We’ll approach that probably by developing project-based initiatives so vendors can bid on the development of a project and maybe do some training before they turn the project over to our own resources,” he said. Although the county workforce will likely get smaller, he added, it’ll also get smarter.

To streamline that process, the county is developing a master services agreement that will prequalify vendors for this type of work. “We’re hoping to cut off quite a bit of time because terms and conditions will already be established,” Sanchez said. “It won’t be the traditional 18-month RFP.”

Most CIOs interviewed acknowledged the importance of maintaining a highly skilled core group of full-time government employees, even if the size of that group ultimately shrinks. But some said even full-timers may not have traditional long-term government careers. Instead, the new generation of workers may move between jobs more frequently.

“I think you’ll see people come in and give us three years, then leave for the private sector, and then they may come back when they have a family and don’t want to travel so much,” said Davis. “But we have to attract them, and we have to create a workplace that is both engaging and challenging for them.”

Platforms are driving workforce strategies.

Although governments still have more than their share of massive traditional IT systems, more development activity is shifting to off-the-shelf and cloud-based platforms. Like their private-sector counterparts, public CIOs are embracing platforms like Salesforce to create business applications more quickly and easily. And that’s changing what IT employees do. 

The NYC Story

IT Commissioner Anne Roest (pictured above) faces similar staffing challenges in New York City, including an aging workforce, which she spoke about with Public CIO last December. 

“We’ve got to bring a new generation up to take the place of the massive number of people we’re going to lose in the next few years,” she said. The evolutionary nature of technology only complicates hiring efforts, she added. New recruits have to know, or be willing to learn, about things like cloud computing and the Internet of Things. “We need to create an environment where people are ready to take a risk, learn something new and have the support system to in fact learn the new skills and move forward with the changing technology.”

New York City’s efforts include working with local universities as well as neighborhood-based tech hubs. “We’re opening up more opportunities for young technologists 

to come and work with the city — internships, fellowships — and then giving them an avenue and an understanding of how to get a good city job,” Roest said. “We want it to be the place to work in the city.”  

Engagement plays a major role in keeping tech talent around for the long term. 

New York City hosts brown-bag-style events to get leadership in front of rank-and-file employees, in both small and large group settings. More important than holding the 

meetings, Roest pointed out, is proving that employee voices are heard. If employees request more support in the form of training, for example, they need to see evidence that the city is willing to deliver.

“We’re working really hard ... to make sure everyone understands that clear career path and that they have the training, tools and support they need to move forward.”

“Gone are the days when we’re going to have programmers starting from scratch and writing code,” said Mahesh Nattanmai, deputy CIO of New York state. “Many of us are going to use a COTS product or some other platform to build from. So we’re less of a product development shop and more of a system integration shop.” 

In New York, the evolution is beingaccelerated by a sweeping reorganization of state IT launched a few years ago. The plan transferred more than 4,000 agency IT workers into the central Office of Information Technology Services, and the change has ramped up retirements among veteran technology staff. Nattanmai said attracting new employees with updated skills ranks among the state’s biggest challenges.

New York’s technology office is conducting an inventory of development platforms currently used by the state, and that information is shaping its talent management and retention strategies. “We’re trying to understand what our strengths are, where we need to improve and where we need to focus our training dollars,” he said.

Long Beach, Calif., also is looking to align workforce talent with a platform strategy. CIO Bryan Sastokas said the city will change platforms if necessary to match the talent that’s available to hire. “Things are changing so dramatically that you need to take a fresh look at that,” he said.

As the platform approach reduces the need for hardcore coding, CIOs are seeking employees with a mix of people skills, business savvy and tech smarts. They need staff members who can talk to customers, understand their needs and then use technology tools to create solutions.

“We used to call those people ‘business systems analysts.’ The newer terms are ‘user experience architects’ or ‘user experience designers,’” Nattanmai said. “Those are the skills we’re trying to build. Absent that, we speak IT, our customers speak non-IT and we have a big gap in the middle.”

New employees may come from unconventional places.

Closely related to the last trend is the notion that at least some new members of the IT department don’t need traditional IT backgrounds. CIOs say new recruits are coming from agency business or program divisions — and sometimes beyond.

“Sometimes I’m asked, ‘Why would you hire someone who might have a theater background into this field?’ But it’s about engagement,” said Sastokas. “We want to be business-driven. We want to understand what our customers really want to know, and how can we engage them and not be so technical.”

The combination of lightweight development platforms and lifelong exposure to technology for many younger workers gives public CIOs more latitude to hire employees with unconventional skill sets. 

Bryan Sastokas, CIO, Long Beach, Calif.

“When many of us were starting out, tech was foreign,” Sastokas said. “But our children are growing up in that environment. They know this stuff. I have developers who don’t use PCs anymore. They’re going onto switches right off their phones.”

For Minnesota CIO Tom Baden, this trend presents a chance to attract existing state workers with specific business skills into IT. The state will continue to run large, mission-critical systems and hire traditional IT talent to support them, Baden said. But growing adoption of hosted platforms means workers can create solutions without needing to write code or set up servers.

“We’re looking for folks who may not have been trained in a technical space, but they have a real passion for the work they’re doing and they find themselves drawn into technology,” he said. “That’s an area where I’m seeing a positive inflow into IT.” 

Since these employees come from program areas like health and human services, they have a deep understanding of end-user needs, potentially leading to more effective solutions. “Another part of this,” Baden said, “is having solid infrastructures, so the focus can be more on the solution set.”

Sastokas contends that adding unconventional employees into the IT workforce begins to reshape IT organizations themselves. As IT groups shift their focus to customer needs, core infrastructure becomes lighter and more agile, he said. “When you hire in those areas, you’re learning from a different viewpoint, and that’s where innovation can really occur.”

But to reap the benefit of new perspectives, public CIOs must be receptive to change. That point recently was driven home to Portage County, Ohio, CIO Brian Kelley by a new hire who requested a Mac instead of the IT department’s standard-issue PC. Kelley granted the request after considering both the employee’s preference and the fact that the county likely will need Apple expertise as it adopts more of the devices in the future.

“Traditionally the answer would be ‘no,’ but you have to rethink, repackage and reconsider things today,” he said. “We’re dealing with a generation of individuals who understand technology, and we need to leverage that to our benefit.”

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Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

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