Government Needs to Rehabilitate Its Image to Attract and Retain Workers

Posted on January 27, 2022

Three people talking in an engaging manner

Bob Lavinga

This guest commentary is by Bob J. Lavigna with CPS HR Consulting. Bob is the author of the book “Engaging Government Employees,” and director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a division of CPS HR Services, an independent government agency. This article originally appeared on RouteFifty.


Nearly every sector of the U.S. economy is facing a labor shortage. Since the pandemic began, employees and job seekers have reevaluated what they want out of work and life. As a result, they are no longer satisfied with inflexible and demanding work cultures and are voting with their feet by leaving their jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November, continuing the trend of record-setting resignations.

For state and local governments that problem is acute. Government HR leaders say they are experiencing a wave of resignations and retirements. Additionally, state and local governments lag behind the private sector in recovering the jobs lost during the pandemic.

The frustration, fatigue and fear of being a public sector employee is real. Case in point: Civil service employees in New York City are reportedly unhappy with the city’s demand that they all return to their offices and work sites and many are looking for new jobs. And with some public sector employees facing harassment and threats to their safety simply for doing their jobs, working for government is increasingly unattractive.

Rehabbing the Government Brand

Unsurprisingly, the immediate reaction by government to mass employee departures is to focus on hiring. This includes previously unheard of incentives like a $15,000 hiring bonus for police officers.

And while focusing on hiring is important, state and local governments have to address their branding and image problem. The public’s impression continues to be that government service is boring and bureaucratic. That’s reinforced when jobs are described in dry, dense language.

One government job “ad” describes the vacancy as “classified” (inside baseball to the uninitiated), lists nine “responsibilities/essential job functions” plus 20 “valued knowledge, skills and abilities.” And then there are the “physical demands”:

Work is typically performed in an office setting with a climate-controlled setting and exposure to moderate noise level. Work will include work outdoors in all weather conditions. While performing the duties of the job, employee is required to talk, kneel, stoop, crouch, stand, walk, reach with hands and arms; carry light items; and drive an automobile. The position requires long periods of sitting and daily use of computer and phone. Applicants must be willing to perform all job-related travel associated with this position.

Glad they clarified that the employee will be required to stand, stoop and crouch. And don’t bother submitting your resumé. Instead, candidates must complete this agency’s own application.

Another vacancy posted on a popular job website led off with 11 paragraphs and 500 words of boilerplate that included:

Recruitments are typically conducted to establish eligibility lists to fill vacancies that occur during the active status of those lists (approximately 3-12 months). Any person on a promotional eligibility list will be considered first by the hiring department(s) before persons on an open eligibility list.

An eligibility list that will last for up to 12 months, and they will consider internal candidates before they even think about me?

Sorry for my cynicism, but it’s tough for government to be competitive for top talent, especially in a tight labor market. The private sector gets it. “The need to move top talent through your hiring pipeline more quickly and efficiently will be the key to recruiting success in 2022,” according to a Wall Street Journal article. The current labor shortage should be a wakeup call for government that it’s time to overhaul hiring practices and find ways to highlight the important and fulfilling work that public servants perform in their states and communities.

Creating a Positive Employee Experience

While hiring is important, the focus shouldn’t just be about replacing departed employees. The other side of the talent coin is engaging and retaining employees. Replacing a departed employee can cost valuable expertise and experience—as well as up to 150% of the employee’s salary.

Retaining talented people means creating a positive “employee experience.” This trendy HR expression simply means ensuring that all the interactions an employee has with their employer are positive.

That means every aspect of the employee lifecycle—recruiting and hiring, onboarding, supervision, training and development, recognition, performance management, pay and benefits, inclusion and equity, and employee well-being—should be as positive as possible.

A good employee experience results in a stable, engaged and high-performing workforce. One analysis revealed that organizations that create a positive employee experience are almost two-and-a-half times more likely to “delight” customers, more than four times likely to be innovative and five times more likely to retain employees.

Creating a positive employee experience requires an integrated talent management strategy (i.e., not just a series of disparate tactics). It also means collecting data to monitor the employee experience.

At our Institute, we help governments measure employee engagement to understand whether employees are having a positive experience, and what to focus on to create this experience.

The most comprehensive, effective and efficient way to measure the employee experience—and therefore engagement—is by surveying employees. Through a survey, the organization asks every employee to provide feedback on their experience, thus identifying workplace factors that may be barriers to a high-performing and highly engaged workforce.

For example, in our national polling and work with public-sector organizations across the nation, employees express concerns about factors such as recognition (“I feel valued for the work I do”), change management, training and development, connection to mission, communication, resources, equity and inclusion, pay and work-life balance.

But every organization is different and needs to base decisions, including how to improve the employee experience, on data such as employee feedback.

Guessing or relying on social events (e.g., “let’s have a virtual happy hour”) no longer cut it in an environment of increasingly intense competition for talent. Instead, our research and work with organizations across the country has revealed that attracting and retaining talent hinges on factors that include making employee engagement a strategic priority, providing strong but empathetic leadership, communicating frequently and candidly, ensuring that the work itself is rewarding and links to the mission, providing relevant training and development opportunities, and recognizing and valuing employees.

In a nutshell, make employees a priority and treat them well.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.” Government also needs to start putting employees first to attract and retain the talent the public sector needs to deliver for the people government serves.

Robert J. Lavigna is the Director, Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, CPS HR Consulting. Bob Lavigna is an award-winning public sector leader and innovator. He is currently the Director of the CPS HR Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement™. The Institute is dedicated to helping public sector and nonprofit organizations measure and improve employee engagement. His first book, Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance, was published by the American Management Association and is now in its second printing.

Before joining CPS HR, Bob was Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of HR for the University of Wisconsin, a university ranked among the world’s top 25 research institutions. Bob’s previous positions include Vice President-Research for the Partnership for Public Service, Senior Manager of Consulting for CPS HR Services, and Director of the Wisconsin civil service system. He began his career with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Bob is an elected Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, was selected as a “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine, and received the highest individual achievement awards from the International Public Management Association for HR (IPMA-HR) and the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE). He was also the first HR executive to be awarded a fellowship from the Council of State Governments. In addition, the organizations Bob has led have received innovation awards from the Ford Foundation, IPMA-HR, NASPE, Society for Human Resource Management and others.

Bob is a past national president of IPMA-HR and past national chair of the American Society for Public Administration Section on Personnel and Labor Relations. He has a B.A. in Public Affairs from George Washington University and an M.S. in HR from Cornell University.

Close window