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NASCIO Midyear: CIOs Aim for 'Motivated and Happy' Workforce

The pandemic and other factors permanently changed the relationship between agencies and tech professionals, speakers argued at the group’s conference. Here’s how to get ahead of the curve on hiring and retaining talent.

Texas DIR Chief People and Culture Officer Lisa Jammer.jpg
Government Technology/David Kidd
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The pandemic may have eased, but the world it left behind is demanding more focus about how to make government technology workforces happier — a need that has risen toward the top of the to-do list for state CIOs.

That was the message Monday from the NASCIO 2023 Midyear conference in suburban Washington, D.C.

Workforce held the No. 3 spot on for this year’s list of Top 10 priorities for state CIOs, according to Stephanie Dedmon, NASCIO president and chief information officer for Tennessee. Cybersecurity stands atop that list, with providing digital government and services in second place.

“We can’t deliver what we need to do for our citizens if we don’t have workforce to do it,” she said at one of the morning sessions during the conference, which Dedmon reported had attracted 881 registrants from 49 states and territories. “We really need a workforce that is motivated and happy.”

Workforce challenges are hardly a new concern, given the shift to remote work during the pandemic and the resulting growth of gov tech to accommodate that. Next came the so-called Great Resignation, layoffs in Big Tech and other changes that are still playing out.

Meanwhile, public agencies face the traditional challenge of recruiting top talent who can often command larger salaries in private industry.

All that said, the sense of urgency around hiring and retaining tech pros in government seemed heightened at the NASCIO conference, thanks in part to a lessons-learned presentation from Lisa Jammer, chief people and culture officer for the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR).

She said 2023 is bringing the highest level of workforce shortages in almost 20 years, with nearly 80 percent of global companies experiencing worker shortages.

That problem, in turn, is highlighting for managers the importance of building an attractive workplace culture and attending to employees who feel that their careers have stalled.

The key to overcoming those hurdles is for employers to be proactive, Jammer said, offering examples from her own agency.

For instance, managers should find ways to check in and talk with employees about what they think their agency is doing right and what problems might be emerging, instead of waiting to learn such information during exit interviews.

Jammer said DIR conducts regular focus groups with randomly selected employees, with bosses making sure to give those workers credit for useful ideas.

The agency also takes inspiration from pop culture to help tackle “business problems” in a collaborative way that involves its labor force.

“We host our own version of ‘Shark Tank,’” she said, referring to the long-running TV show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas before investors. “The employees love it. They get to innovate and they feel like stakeholders.”

That can have measurable impacts. Employees who feel that they belong to an organization tend to use fewer sick days and are “more willing to stay at the job,” Jammer said.

Employees who have decided to quit and seek new jobs tend to spend 11 hours per week on that search, she told the NASCIO audience. That presents another opportunity for agencies: Channel that energy into an internal job search via a “structured program” that can help existing employees move vertically or laterally within the organization.

Seemingly commonsense approaches can work wonders as well in this emerging workplace environment, she said, stressing the importance of employee recognition. That takes more than just a pro forma pat on the back, though — it takes a genuine change in how agencies view their workers.

“Employees stopped being employees during the pandemic,” Jammer said. “They are people, and we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.