More than a money thing: lessons from the public sector

By Graham S. Lowe
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/24/2002

Most human resource professionals don’t view governments as fertile ground for innovative practices. But this could quickly change.

As employers, governments are bracing themselves for unprecedented workforce renewal: compared with the private sector, governments face more immediate demographic pressures; skill requirements in the public service are rising fast; and governments’ extensive reliance on information technology places a premium on its effective use.

But unlike the private sector, governments’ ability to provide economic rewards to the growing number of knowledge workers is constrained. In this respect, successful recruitment and retention requires bold new ways of organizing, managing, supporting and rewarding people.

According to a new study by the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN), a national public policy think-tank, some government work units are doing just that.

Furthermore, understanding the human resource management challenges governments face — and options for action — provide useful lessons for all employers.

CPRN’s research discovered pockets of innovation within the five governments studied. Just over one in four work units had begun to move from a traditional bureaucratic model of work organization toward a new more flexible model.

The new flexible workplace is defined by clustered human resource management and work design practices that encourage skill development, employee participation, delegated responsibility, horizontal rather than hierarchical careers, teamwork and flexible work arrangements.

A flexible workplace supports employees to develop and use their skills and knowledge. The end result is improved organizational performance and quality of working life — a key ingredient in successfully recruiting and keeping staff.

The demographic “crunch”

The public service has aged more rapidly than the national labour force. Within five years, many individuals at the front end of the baby-boom cohort will reach retirement eligibility (age 55).

This coming exodus of older workers will have the greatest impact within the ranks of senior management. For example, by 2005, about 90 per cent of senior executives in the federal public service will be eligible for retirement benefits and in the lower levels 70 per cent of employees are nearing retirement.

Succession planning has therefore become one of the most pressing management issues facing government. It’s complicated by a shortage of younger employees who could move quickly into more senior positions.

Moving from bureaucratic to flexible workplaces

Careers in government historically have been based on a pyramid-shaped organization, with a talent pool of junior and mid-level staff who could be groomed for more senior positions. The expectation was upward career movement. But since the mid-1980s, this bureaucratic career model has been static.

Downsizing and hiring freezes in the 1990s reduced the numbers of workers within the upper and lower age ranges. As the age profile of the civil service became more onion-shaped, assumptions about career structures — suited to an organization with an age profile shaped more like a pyramid — no longer fit reality. So it’s time to rethink job and career structures.

One alternative is to create a flatter, team-based organization that values horizontal career mobility. This would be a better fit with demographic trends. Horizontally and vertically integrated teams bring together experienced senior staff with junior staff from across complementary functions, along with new recruits and student interns.

This team approach would provide mentorship for new recruits, enable knowledge transfer from senior to junior staff, and create more challenging work experiences for everyone involved.

Recruiting the next generation

During the 1990s, public sector cutbacks and restructuring were headline news and political pressures to reduce deficits implicitly questioned the value of public servants. Furthermore, there was little or no recruiting of graduates into permanent positions. Not surprisingly then, government employers now have an image problem when it comes to recruiting recent post-secondary graduates — the future generation of knowledge workers.

A recent survey of university students found that about two-thirds preferred a job in the private sector. Those students who stated a preference for a job in the public sector emphasized wanting to contribute to the betterment of society. This underscores the importance of selling both the intrinsic rewards of public service work and how it contributes positively to society.

Matching a young person’s qualifications and skills with their job requirements is a crucial first step in career development. These are the features that will appeal to recent university graduates, generate a higher level of job satisfaction and therefore improve attraction and retention rates.

But, making job quality just a youth or recruitment issue sends the wrong signal to older employees, with demoralizing effects. All employees must be provided with greater autonomy, opportunities for participation, recognition, feedback and information.

Younger and older workers want high quality work

Younger workers want flexible, challenging, learning-intensive work environments. We’re often reminded that these are the rewards sought by the “Nexus generation” — people in their mid-twenties to late 30s.

But talking to any middle-aged employee shows that these aspirations are not unique to the Nexus generation. These also are sources of satisfaction for long-time government employees. So in many respects, younger workers today are no different than graduates in the 1970s or 1980s.

So there are no uniquely “youth” work values. However, young workers have always been more footloose and inclined to leave if their aspirations are not met. In contrast, older workers whose expectations are unmet are more likely to stay.

These differences aside, workers of all ages want similar personal rewards from their work, making it essential that government employers meet the career aspirations of all workers.

Broadly-based HR management strategy

The growing proportion of knowledge workers in government is raising the bar when it comes to job rewards. But governments can’t match the salaries offered to many types of knowledge workers by private firms. Stock options don’t exist. So the attractions of government jobs must come from providing a public service, career development opportunities and challenging work.

There is considerable evidence showing that while obviously important, compensation is not the single most central factor in making job decisions. According to the 2000 CPRN-Ekos Changing Employment Relationships Survey, Canadian workers rate the following job characteristics as more important than pay, security or benefits: being treated with respect; challenging and interesting work that gives a sense of accomplishment; opportunities to develop one’s skills and abilities; friendly and helpful co-workers; and good communication.

This is not to suggest that intrinsic job rewards can make up for low pay or a lack of benefits. Rather, the issue is the relative importance that individuals place on all aspects of a job when assessing its overall quality. Yet for too many workers, there’s a big gap between dreams and reality. Employers who are committed to closing this gap will find it easier to develop their human resources.

Canada’s governments want to become “employers of choice.” Many are striving to be more flexible, knowledge-intensive and learning-based. If governments can offer personally rewarding work, they stand a better chance of attracting and keeping motivated and skilled workers of all ages.

This is true for all employers — getting “branded” as a great place to work is crucial for finding and keeping talent.

Graham S. Lowe is director of the Work Network, Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. and professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. This article is based on his report, Employer of Choice? Workplace Innovation in Government, recently published by Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. (available at: www.cprn.org).

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