The transformed HR organization must have policies and procedures that ensure internal staff mobility, world-class recruiting, advanced training and development,
a well-crafted talent management system, and sound management of the contingent workforce.
6. Offer internal mobility options. Increased mobility contributes to richer career paths, greater worker engagement, and a better match between talent supply and demand. HR organizations need to design bold mobility schemes. This requires building a variety of connections to facilitate employee transfers and exchanges:
- Among departments within the same ministry or agency at both the central and local levels
- Among groups with similar roles at different public-sector organizations
- Among public and private organizations
Public-sector leaders in Germany have increased worker mobility by creating a new career option, the horizontal career track. They did so in response to the frustration of some experienced senior civil servants with the traditional vertical track, which often left them with little opportunity to move up in the organization. With the new approach, employees have the option of switching to a job at the same management level but with different duties and responsibilities.
7. Address recruiting challenges through improved branding, hiring, and onboarding. Recruiting is more than just scouting for talent. In addition to attracting and finding the right people, it includes building a strong employer brand, successfully bringing new hires onboard, and taking steps to retain top talent. A systematic and effective onboarding process is especially critical in order to reduce early attrition. And given the growing talent shortage in most developed countries, public-sector organizations must pay close attention to their branding as an employer. A number of factors determine that brand, including the degree of gender equality in the organization; opportunities for minorities, disabled workers, and senior citizens; and, most important, the corporate culture and overall satisfaction of employees.
The German railway operator Deutsche Bahn understands well the power of a strong employer brand as part of a holistic talent acquisition approach. In 2012, when the company saw that it needed to hire up to 70,000 new employees over ten years, it decided to overhaul its talent acquisition strategy. The first step was to assess how it was viewed by current and potential employees. Deutsche Bahn launched a broad employee survey, scores of employee interviews, and extensive market research, as well as an ambitious branding campaign aimed at enhancing its image as an employer. It segmented its applicant base into four categories—high-school graduates, college graduates, professionals with an academic background, and professionals without an academic background—and tailored its branding and recruiting activities to each group. The overhaul paid quick dividends, with incoming applications up about 40% in the first year and an enormous increase in their attractiveness.
Central to any employer brand, of course, is the organization’s culture. Faced with budgetary uncertainty and unresolved questions about the future of manned space flight, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched a broad initiative in 2013 to remake its culture. The effort comprised three elements: recognizing and rewarding innovation, engaging and connecting with the workforce, and improving the roster of supervisors and leaders. Among the most enthusiastically received initiatives was a “reverse mentorship” program, in which line employees mentor senior managers. Senior managers are now able to learn firsthand what their staff actually do, including the problems they face every day. The program has improved morale and given the agency’s leaders a much better understanding of what is happening at the heart of the organization.
8. Design and implement training and development processes. Development and training should be tailored to the needs of the workforce—segmented, for example, by age or employee potential. For those in leadership positions, training and development should be designed to develop complementary capabilities such as operational, strategic, and interpersonal and communication skills.
HR leaders also have a major opportunity to improve the efficiency of training outsourcing by, among many other examples, setting a minimum size for training sessions, using formal proposal processes, cutting costs through competitive bidding, and identifying where in-house trainers (rather than outsourced providers) can be used. Government training efforts can take a page from the playbook of large companies such as GE and Bertelsmann, which are using e-learning tools in their internal training centers as well as partnerships with external academic institutions.
The US Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency that monitors federal spending, has a well-tuned Professional Development Program. In their first two years at the agency, entry-level accountants and analysts—the majority of new hires at GAO—are assigned an employee mentor and sent on three increasingly specialized rotations across the organization, each lasting an average of six to ten months. The program provides a robust orientation for new employees and helps identify suitable long-term career paths.
9. Design an ambitious and structured talent management process. Talent management in the public sector should include, among other things, clearly defined individual and organizational goals, close monitoring of individual performance, and the development of action plans in cases where performance is falling short of agreed-upon objectives. In addition, in those countries where performance-based compensation is possible, workers whose performance exceeds expectations should receive monetary or other rewards.
Some governments, including Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, have become world-class leaders in talent management. Their programs involve sophisticated segmentation of the talent pool and the use of scholarships, competitive compensation structures, and clearly identified career paths. In Singapore, the Public Service Leadership Programme focuses on cultivating talent across a number of critical areas, from management of the economy to infrastructure and the environment to national security. Candidates go through a rigorous selection process that includes a written exam and interview. The program replaces Singapore’s highly successful Management Associates Programme, which offered promising entry-level officers a carefully designed management career track. (See The Making of a Talent Magnet: Lessons from Singapore’s Civil Service, BCG Focus, May 2012.)
10. Manage the contingent workforce. In addition to building strong connections with the internal workforce, public-sector HR teams need to strengthen their external relationships, especially with subcontractors. In many governments, this contingent workforce plays a significant role, particularly when it comes to handling seasonal spikes in demand in areas such as tax collection and building maintenance.
Solid, long-term connections with the external workforce offer two key benefits. First, they can improve work quality. Building strong ties with talented technology-oriented freelancers, for example, can speed up the development of digital tools. Second, these relationships can help reduce costs by allowing more efficient management of peaks in labor demand, for example, or by coinvesting with outsourced providers in the training of contingent workers.
The imperative to remake HR in the public sector is impossible to ignore. But governments must put the right pieces in place to drive the changes needed. First, they must dedicate adequate resources and talent to the effort. This means resisting the ever-present temptation to pare the HR budget and staff as overall government budgets tighten. Second, leaders should ensure that the right governance structures are in place, including a project management office to oversee and manage key HR initiatives. Third, governments must be willing to experiment through pilot projects that test new initiatives in specific ministries or regions before they are deployed nationally. And fourth, the effort must include collaboration among HR leaders in different ministries, agencies, and geographies in order to rapidly identify and share best practices.
With these key mechanisms in place, leaders can accelerate the transformation of the HR function and boost the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the entire government organization.