Mayor Funk: You Won’t Get All Your People Back. What’s Next?

Posted on May 4, 2021

Mayor Funk headshot

ELGL is proud to feature the writing and thinking of longtime member Mark Funkhouser. Here’s his latest post, and you can also sign up for his newsletter here or connect with him via email.

Here’s a harsh reality that will be hard for some who lead and manage in municipal government to stomach. Those staffers you lost as COVID-19 battered your local government’s tax revenues? They aren’t all coming back any time soon.

Not as the economy rebounds. Not even as billions of federal pandemic-recovery dollars flow toward cities, counties and school districts.

It might seem unfair. If the jobs went away when money was tight, surely they should come back when local governments are flush — right? But most of the time, when government workers are cut the positions take many years to return, if they return at all. We saw that with the Great Recession, and we’ll likely to see it today, when the cuts have been even steeper.

Understandably, this is enormously frustrating. Not only are you trying to figure out how to maintain the same level of services for your constituents that your organization offered pre-pandemic, but you also face the indignity of being told to “do more with less.” Your workforce tasked with carrying out this mandate is also experiencing the exhaustion, heartbreak, and frustration so many of us are facing in the COVID-19 era. Fortunately, one theme I keep hearing over and over from municipal leaders is how agile their workforces became during the pandemic. Public-sector workers figured out better ways to get stuff done. Let’s lean into that entrepreneurial attitude and see what our teams can do when given the right tools.

Public sector leaders who want to maintain strong, effective teams that aren’t burnt out will have to do something fast. My advice: Get creative with technology. One of the only silver linings of the last year is that governments accelerated their implementation of technology in a way we’ve never seen before. It was a stunning about-face for a sector not usually known for being on the cutting edge. Silos were broken down, aided by software platforms that enabled collaboration in new ways. Governments and citizens connected in new and creative ways. Now, as we start returning to something that resembles normal, let’s not go back to being squeamish about trying new technology.

Savvy public-sector managers who embrace tech can accomplish two things:

First, they can gain back some of what they lost from their depleted workforces. Of course, there’s no replacing institutional knowledge when seasoned colleagues are forced from their roles. But technology can help us gain back efficiencies and make our teams work more smoothly. Technology not only allows us to claw back hours of the day, it empowers us to understand our communities and our roles in new ways.

A great example of this comes from Adams County just outside of Denver. Local governments maintain vast troves of data, but rarely is it presented in a way that’s easily accessible and understandable to the public. Before the pandemic, the county deployed a new system that not only tracks loads of critical data but also includes a user-friendly interface allowing the public to search and visualize information about important community topics such as oil and gas drilling and blighted properties. Even as staff was reduced, the tool freed up remaining colleagues to work on other projects, since they no longer had to spend as much time tracking down information residents requested. And it empowered community members by giving them important data in an innovative format.

Second, technology can make workers happier, believe it or not. Big tech sometimes is portrayed as something that costs workers their jobs. But a more positive and accurate way to think about technology is as a force multiplier. Though many of those employees we lost aren’t coming back, the right technological solutions in the right places can reduce stress and improve morale for those who remain.

Tech can allow public workers not only to execute on their mission but also to feel more in control. After all — and contrary to what much of the public believes — most people in this line of work are doing it because they care deeply about their communities and want to use government as a force for good to improve people’s lives. If technology allows staff to perform better, it can enhance the pride they feel in their work and the meaning they gain from it.

If you’re a government leader, now’s the time to think hard about the type of technology you can unleash that will allow your teams to thrive. The pandemic isn’t over, but we at least no longer feel like our communities are on fire. Thanks to the federal stimulus, governments may finally have the resources to deploy the technology they need. You have time to make deliberate choices about your strategy and how to improve. Your colleagues, meanwhile, have shown they’re up to the challenge. And if you’re a tech company, now’s the time to double down and think hard about how you can help public-sector workers fulfill their mission. They’ve never been more prepared.

Is your community finding creative ways to respond to layoffs? Please send me a note, and we may feature it in the next newsletter.

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