The federal government is grappling with a talent shortage. This manifests in critical roles left vacant, with agencies and departments struggling to not only attract but retain top talent, especially in highly specialized, high-demand areas such as cybersecurity and IT.
Certainly, pay incongruities between the public and private sectors weigh on employee attrition. Even with the recent 4.6 percent federal pay bump, it hasn’t been enough to keep pace with the private sector. But beyond this, it is often the absence of a strong and meaningful workplace culture within many federal agencies that leaves little to keep sought-after workers from leaving for greener pastures.
A wrong perception — or is it?
It may be unsurprising that the federal government suffers from an image problem. Many job-seekers believe public-sector employees have a “by-the-rules” mentality that is more about checking boxes and following procedures than solving actual problems. This notion is especially harmful to younger workers who federal agencies hope to attract and retain to replace their aging workforce. More so than older generations, younger workers want purpose and meaning in their career choices.
But there are also some real and inherent issues contributing to our government’s culture perception. These include complex bureaucratic processes and hierarchies, slow decision-making, outdated technologies, and a dearth of programs for employee growth and career development.
In reality, government workers want the same things from their work culture that those in the private sector do—to be supported in doing their jobs, to be valued and recognized for their contributions, to have a sense they’re making a difference, and the ability to grow and advance in their careers.
Best practices for building a better work culture
Starting in 2024, here are some things federal organizations can do to begin shaping a more meaningful work culture to attract and retain top talent. Most of all, this starts by assuming a people-first mentality.
1. Create a plan for change. Evaluate what is needed to change your work culture for the better and create an accountability plan, budget, and timeline to ensure it actually does change.
2. Improve recruitment efforts. The government must get better and faster at how it acquires talent. In our current tight labor market, poor speed of communication back to qualified applicants in the hiring process reinforces stereotypes and often results in losing top candidates, who go elsewhere. If we can’t get workers, we certainly cannot keep them. Recruitment efforts should also be stepped up at college campuses, where younger job-seekers are.
3. Enrich onboarding initiatives. According to a CareerBuilder survey, one in 10 exit an organization due to a poor onboarding experience, and 37 percent say their manager did not play a critical role in their onboarding. Go beyond paperwork and processes, taking the time to get to know new hires so you can acquaint them with other like-minded individuals, including those in other departments or offices to extend their network outside their immediate team. Further, create a regular schedule to meet with new hires to gain two-way feedback and discuss how things are going.
4. Encourage innovation. While it’s important for workers to understand what their job functions are and how their performance will be measured, encourage them to be creative in solving problems and managing tasks without fear of failure. This not only makes workers feel empowered but helps to dispel the myth of government workers acting as automatons.
5. Communicate workers’ value. As part of a large agency, workers may feel they’re “just a number” and largely invisible and powerless. Make sure workers understand the importance of their role and the value they bring. Solicit their insight and opinions, praise them for work well done, and make sure they know you’re there to help. An open-door policy is key to keeping a pulse not only on workplace issues, but worker satisfaction.
6. Provide up-to-date resources. Ensure employees have the tools and equipment they need to perform their jobs effectively. This doesn’t just improve worker satisfaction, as IT investments in particular can streamline processes and boost organizational productivity. The government office that uses antiquated technologies is another perception that needs to end.
7. Offer continuous learning. Training enhances workers’ skills and value to the organization, and also makes them feel invested-in. If your agency isn’t investing in the development of its human resources, chances are they will move somewhere that does. Ninety-four percent of surveyed workers said they would stay at an organization longer if it invested in their career.
8. Be more flexible. COVID-19 brought with it changes in how and where we work by necessity. It also demonstrated federal agencies could move swiftly when required. The private sector is attempting to maintain some level of flexibility post-pandemic—something federal agencies should also consider to be competitive in retaining top talent. While the government embraces regulatory changes, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, it has been slower to adapt newer, non-regulated ways of working that deliver improved quality of life.
Like a large ship changing course, exacting change within a government organization can take time, especially when it involves budgetary increases or changes to processes that have been in place for decades. But such changes are necessary for the public sector to compete with private companies for talent. Begin with the soft changes that can be implemented immediately, but also start positioning for larger shifts that can make the difference in filling job vacancies and retaining top talent over the long haul.
Joe Thiel is president of Meridian Technologies, an IT workforce and consulting services provider that helps organizations in the commercial market and federal government agencies to fuel enterprise transformation.