Talent Crisis in the Public Sector

by May 7, 2019Economy, Governance

Shagorika Ghosh and Alexander Shermansong

Shagorika Ghosh is a development practitioner and a graduate student at Columbia University. She is passionate about the inclusion of diverse narratives in social impact and urban spaces and how technology can bring the two together.

Alexander Shermansong is the founder of Civic Consulting USA, which helps cities and companies to innovate together.

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The Culture Gap

In the last 20 years, the private sector has invested heavily in the culture of the workplace, but the public sector has failed to keep up. As a result, governments face a growing “culture gap” which will imperil their ability to replenish their talent.

Organizational culture is sometimes misconstrued as merely the perks a company offers, reducing the complex concept to what makes a company “cool.” It goes far beyond that. Organizational culture is the set of beliefs, values, and ideas that are learned and shared. Though often unspoken and implicit, culture determines how things get done. (For more in depth on organizational culture, pick up Corporate Culture and Performance by John Kotter and James Heskitt.)

“Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time,” per a now classic Harvard Business Review article. The most successful organizations align their culture with their business strategy, intentionally adjusting the culture to enable the strategy. When you overlook culture, your strategic aspirations are often stunted. As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast. City governments simply will not be able to implement 21st century policies with a 20th century work culture.

So how can city and state governments close the culture gap? 

Assessing the Culture Gap: Cross-sector Partnerships

Surprisingly, there are few resources for addressing public sector culture, and sometimes government leaders dismiss the notion as too fuzzy. So let us suggest a very practical starting point: turn to your existing cross-sector partnerships. These partnerships and projects have been proliferating in cities across the country. Increasingly, cities are embracing the model of networked government in which municipal employees aren’t necessarily the direct provider of services, but rather enablers of those services.

In addition to the direct value of the service provided, these partnerships offer cities powerful benefits such as:

  • Exposure to new ideas. Through NYCx the CTO of New York City introduces municipal managers to emerging technologies and entrepreneurs that relate to the agency’s mission and core priorities, from promoting the adoption of electric vehicles to reducing household waste to protecting small business from cyber risks.
  • Requisite talent in the short-term. The Startup in Residence program embeds startups within government agencies to co-develop solutions – bringing technology expertise that the agencies would not otherwise attract.
  • Organizational learning and development. Pro bono programs like Civic Consulting Alliance in Chicago and the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership enable cities to borrow employees from local companies for special projects. These “professionals on loan” often bring new tools and techniques that can change how an agency operates even beyond the scope of the project.

Through cross-sector partnerships like these, city governments can begin to understand the culture gap. Increasingly, companies are using these very programs to enhance their own corporate culture.

Transforming Culture: Skilled Volunteering

Many companies have already woken up to the fact that cross-sector partnerships can unlock tremendous HR value. As corporate surveys are increasingly showing, volunteering outside of your work increases employee engagement. In fact, skilled volunteering is one of the most cost-effective ways of advancing key HR objectives of attracting, developing, and retaining talent.

Here are three examples of how these partnerships can effectively address key levers in shaping culture within an organization:

  1. Articulating core organizational values
  2. Demonstrating the culture through highly symbolic actions
  3. Continual renewal of skills and perspectives.

The Anthropology Theory Behind Pro Bono as a Culture Driver

Anthropologists have developed a concept of “liminality”: status or privilege can change when individuals step out of their current status into a liminal state (limina is Latin for threshold). In the liminal state, they undergo changes, and then come back into a new normal. Similarly, when employees are given pro bono assignments, they step out of their regular milieu, often  going to work at a nonprofit or city agency. Crossing that “threshold” gives them room to try new things, reflect, and grow. When they come back to business as usual, they are often changed by the experience – both refreshed and re-educated. Intentionally selecting volunteer and partnership opportunities, executives can use “liminality” to reshape the workforce and the organizational culture.

Culture Lever 1: Articulating core organizational values

Too often value statements are merely posted on the wall, not actually embedded in processes. Skilled volunteering can change that. At Allstate, life-time loyalty is an important value, as is employee initiative. The Allstate Fellows program reflects both values: employees with significant tenure can propose a community-oriented organization for them to help that fits both their specific skillsets and their individual interests. If accepted, the employee is sponsored to work for three months at that organization. This is a powerful incentive both to engage in the volunteering activity and also to build loyalty to the company.

Culture Lever 2: Demonstrating the culture through highly symbolic actions

Culture is also furthered through symbolic actions that express the culture and offer proof points. Take the case of Southwest Airlines, an organization that prides itself on connecting people to what is important in their lives. Southwest demonstrates this commitment through their Tickets for Time program – when employees devote more than 40 hours of volunteering to a nonprofit or school of their choice, Southwest Airlines provides that organization with complimentary roundtrip tickets, thus going above and beyond customer expectations.

The Salesforce model of corporate giving also leverages this model. In this case, when an employee finishes seven full days of volunteering (fully paid!), Salesforce donates an additional $1000 to a nonprofit of the employee’s choice.

Culture Lever 3: Continual renewal of skills and perspectives

Volunteer projects allow employees to take on roles and responsibilities outside of their mandated tasks, which in turn can change their profiles and relationships within the organization. For instance, VMware, a company that values giving back to the community and their employees, has launched its Good Gigs program to promote service learning. They match employees with nonprofits that require specific skills, after which the employees must share their learnings from the experience with the rest of the company.

Putting It All Together

When Investopedia launched their skilled volunteering program, they designed it holistically to engage employees’ hearts and minds. The senior management chose to invest in financial literacy programs. After researching the field and reviewing hundreds of nonprofits, they nominated five organization for pro bono time. Employees on loan helped these organizations align with Investopedia’s mission and pitch themselves to the entire company. All employees then voted, from the interns up to the CEO, collectively selecting two nonprofits to help them volunteer in high schools and teach financial literacy. This program demonstrated Investopedia’s value of democratizing financial literacy, honed employees’ analysis and presentation skills, deepening financial knowledge and analytical capacities; while also helping drive the brand and increase the number of people visiting the Investopedia website, thereby enhancing revenue.


Applying these Models in the Public Sector

Closing the culture gap begins with two steps.

  1. City agencies can partner with a civic-minded company to observe and learn how they treat culture as an organizational asset.
  2. Agencies can create their own skilled volunteering program to re-shape the culture.

It might seem unrealistic in the public sector, where budgets are already stretched so thin, but there are reasons to hope. For example, the US Department of Education encourages employees to participate in tutoring activities and volunteering at schools. And Strong Cities, Strong Communities created a program to loan federal employees to be embedded in mayoral offices to promote the implementation of federal mandates.

In fact, research has shown that public sector employees volunteer at higher rates than their for-profit counterparts. If elected officials and public agencies harnessed this public service motivation, it would be a tremendous force to enhance their organizational culture, even without additional investment.

As cities surf the silver tsunami, cross-sector partnerships can provide two critical benefits. In the short term, the partnerships provide critical talent for policy priorities. Longer term, municipal governments can learn and emulate how private sector leaders have shaped organizational culture.

As we face continued challenges and a faster pace of innovation, the cities that make their work cultures attractive to high-potential younger employers will continue to grow and thrive.


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  1. Everyone knows what culture is, but what’s a “culture gap”? You never defined it. What problem are you addressing for the public sector, and what proof can you offer that there is such a problem?

  2. Your ideas are great ones. But, IMHO, talented people avoid the public sector because we, as a society, continue to treat public servants as worthless, incapable private sector castoffs. We don’t compensate public servants commensurate with private sector employees with comparable abilities or knowledge. (Compare the salary of your local city manager to that of the CEO of your local regulated public utility). We actively work to renege on promised retirement benefits. And even very common perks in the private sector—tuition reimbursement and training—vanished from most state and local governments budgets during the global credit crisis. We tell our public servants we trust them…and then give them p-cards with $100 spending limits. We regularly see city councils side with the narrative of fact-lite claims of citizens over trained, experienced staff. We find 101 ways to tell and show our public servants they are stupid, inferior and unwanted.

    But, somehow we seem to be surprised when we can’t attract and maintain a quality public sector workforce. Again, your ideas are good ones, but the first fix has to be to change the narrative at all levels of government. Public servants aren’t the enemy. In my experience, only true believers put up with the abuse and disrespect they get daily from the public, the media and their own elected officials. They work in the public sector because they believe in its value. The obligatory annual staff appreciation ceremony can’t possibly be expected to do anything but add insult to injury.

    Want to improve the culture in public organizations? We need to start treating folks with respect and recognizing that many of them made a conscious choice to work in the public sector—they didn’t simply “settle” for a government job.

  3. Jeff — great point about starting with respect. Showing public employees that we value them could go a long way to shaping a culture of employee engagement. I’ve seen again and again that, working side-by-side on projects, the private sector workers come away with a new appreciation for the work our local government employees do each day.

  4. Ted — The culture gap shows up in two ways.

    One, many companies have intentionally built an organizational culture that attracts top talent, but few if any governments have done so.

    Two, there is a wealth of resources for private sector leaders seeking to build a strong culture, but a relative dearth for their public sector counterparts.

  5. I’m in with Jeff about respect, BUT I also think you cannot undersell the salary issue. It used to be that civil servants made less than folks working in similar capacities in the private sector, but that in the bargain they got robust pensions. Now, governments are either cutting back on pension benefits or eliminating them altogether. And while I get it because municipalities and states are saddled with massive pension obligations, at the same time, there is now a disincentive to stay long in overworked, underpaid public sector jobs. I regularly see talented young people spending 2-3 years soaking up everything they can in public sector jobs, and then leaving and taking everything they’ve learned — and all the investment we have made in their development — to the private sector. And they leave because they do the math and realize they can’t afford to stay, especially those living and working in high-cost cities. If anything, I can see cross-sector partnerships totally backfiring when people see that they can make more money with a lot less headache on the private side. I love what I do and am proud to serve the public, but at a certain point, if I don’t leave, I won’t be able to afford my retirement, and no amount of transforming the culture of my workplace is going to change that.


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