5 Steps to Recruit Tech Talent to Your City

Improving communications to job-seekers and creating a more tech-friendly city environment can go a long way toward appealing to the best of the IT world.

by / April/May 2017

City officials intent on using technology to improve the way they operate face a range of obstacles in convincing talented data analysts, systems architects and coders to come work for them. How can a city compete with tech giants like Google or Facebook that can offer much larger salaries, access to trendy products and stylish work environments?

Based on my experience in city government, as well as many conversations with mayors, department heads and chief data officers, I’ve learned that improving communications to job-seekers and creating a more tech-friendly city environment can go a long way toward appealing to the best of the IT world. Here are five steps cities can take to make their data and IT offices a hub for tech talent:

Create attractive job descriptions and post them in the right places. In an Internet-driven job market, the first line of communication for an employer is often a general job site, which means local governments need to write engaging job descriptions to distinguish themselves from thousands of other listings. Cook County, Ill.’s Bureau of Technology has invested in its job listings, rewriting descriptions to appeal to private-sector employees and combining formerly separate jobs, which creates more substantive opportunities and frees up funds to increase salaries.

It’s also important that cities advertise their openings in places where job-seekers are likely to go looking. In addition to prominent sites like Indeed.com and Monster.com, cities should post jobs on tech-specific sites like Dice. In an effort to make postings more accessible and signal tech savvy to prospective employees, cities like New York have also revamped their job sites. NYC Tech Jobs boasts open source code and a polished UX, and includes detailed job descriptions and videos from current employees.

Develop partnerships with universities. Officials can also increase awareness of tech jobs by boosting their cities’ presence in academic institutions. A number of schools now offer dual degrees in tech and policy, for example the University of Chicago’s Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy. By organizing internship programs for credit in such programs, facilitating casework as a part of classes, or simply by holding info sessions and job fairs, cities can display the value of working in local government and attract talent.

Partnering with schools in a research capacity can also help cities locate and hire talent. At Harvard, to support the Ash Center’s Civic Analytics Network — a network of data officers from around the country — we have placed fellows in a number of city data offices. Harvard’s Government Performance Lab also places fellows in cities to galvanize outcome-driven policy. These partnerships can provide the prestige and resources to appeal to tech job-seekers, many of whom may continue to work in city government after experiencing municipal work firsthand.

Offer substantive internship opportunities. Providing more appealing internship experiences may also create a pipeline to bring talent to city tech jobs. Boston designed a sleek website to advertise its internship opportunities, which allows applicants to designate areas of interest like “helping people find affordable places to live,” ensuring meaningful placements. Boston gives stipends to its interns and provides them with experience in creating innovative solutions to municipal problems. These types of experiences show interns the excitement and purpose involved in resolving city problems, which encourages them to pursue municipal work down the road.

Create tech-savvy work conditions. City data and IT offices should attempt to emulate the state-of-the-art workspaces and creative exercises that have become such a draw for tech companies. Philadelphia embraced the startup spirit when creating its Innovation Lab, an open-floorplan office decorated with murals that provides a place for city employees to step out of their daily routine to spend time focusing on ideation. In the lab, city employees are encouraged to participate in hackathons and other forms of creative problem-solving.

Post and hire quickly. Cities should streamline the hiring process, abandoning entrenched and systematized city hiring practices that discourage talent from applying or following through with interviews. If it is clear that you have a tech all-star after two interviews, hire him or her before another company does. There’s no reason why cities cannot post a job for 30 days, hold interviews a week later and make a decision within six weeks.

As tech companies offer more and more money to prospective employees, cities need to be increasingly strategic in their efforts to recruit talent. Cities’ ability to create appealing tech jobs and advertise them effectively will have large implications on the future of civic tech talent — talent that cities will need to enhance government’s digital capabilities. 

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Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.

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