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The Key to Modernizing the Public-Sector Workforce

Studies show American workers are changing jobs more frequently than ever before — government workers included. Updating the workplace for public-sector staff is just as key as any technology evolution.

Much has been written about the evolution of the government workforce, and a fair amount of it has been written in this magazine. GT has documented the shift over the past few decades from the career public servant to the more mobile employee of today, more likely to jump between jobs in the private, nonprofit and public sectors in search of a new challenge or a raise. The fact is, few American workers spend their entire career in one place anymore.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1983, almost one-third of employees ages 45 or older had worked for the same employer for 20 years or more, while one-third of employees between 35 and 44 had worked for the same employer for a decade or more. Today’s workers tend to move around a bit more. Thirty-five years after the above data was collected, in January 2018, less than one-quarter of workers over 45 had at least 20 years of tenure at the same employer, while nearly 30 percent between 35 and 44 had at least 10 years at the same employer.

Perhaps more telling, though, is the fact that government employees across local, state and federal government now have a median tenure of 6.8 years: 8.3 is the federal median, 5.9 for state and 6.9 for employees in local government. But what does this information tell us?

Culture is key

Employees generally have more options when it comes to jobs than they did a generation ago. They don’t feel as stuck in an unsatisfying position, which makes their leaders’ jobs harder. There’s a certain amount of workforce mobility that is to be expected, but managers need to cultivate the talent within their organizations using the tools that are available to them.

A recent study from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence notes an increase in the availability of benefits like flexible work hours, paid training, wellness programs and paid family leave. And while these developments are positive, the onus on public-sector technology leaders is to undergo transformative modernization efforts while cultivating buy-in from a workforce with a growing number of other employment options.

Arizona Chief Information Officer Morgan Reed said recently that “the two things that state employees hate the most are the way things are and change.” It’s a sentiment that probably applies across the workforce, government or not. But as Reed points out, the road to modernization is not without its bumps. What’s key is to take the time to communicate the importance of coming changes and how they will help internal operations run more efficiently and, in the end, deliver a higher level of service to the public government serves.

Better outcomes

Colorado Chief Technology Officer David McCurdy says that the hardest part of the modernization process is to help employees understand that there’s much more to transformation than new technology. The goal is not just to make the old process faster, but also to introduce an entirely new, and better, way of doing things.

“A lot of times, agencies and the state as a whole get stuck in trying to reproduce and do the same process over and over and over again,” he said, “and a lot of times technology can help agencies jump or completely change processes … for the betterment of the whole interaction.”

Keeping up with consumer demands with a government budget requires courageous leaders with technical know-how that is complemented with the communications skills to cultivate the buy-in needed from the workforce for truly transformative change.

“It’s really up to government leaders to make sure our employees know that this change is going to happen, it’s for the best and, ultimately, it’s to deliver better outcomes for our citizens,” Reed said.

Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle 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.