04/10/2014 11:33 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

How the Government Should Recruit

To wisely and effectively recruit and retain talented staff is always a pressing need at all levels of government. The issues and challenges that governments are dealing with are more complex than ever before. As demand for services increase and governments run deficits, they have to find ways to do more with less. This applies to recruiting top talent, including those with the innovative ideas necessary to effectively address these new challenges.

It's interesting to speak to people from outside of the civil service about what they think about government employees. It is also interesting that those attitudes can change over time. Opinion seems to polarize along these lines: a) government employees are underworked and overpaid with overly rich benefits and pensions b) government work doesn't pay enough to attract good workers, and c) the public service isn't interested in those with private sector experience. Furthermore, the hiring process isn't open or easy and it favours those with connections.

Having worked with government clients in the organizational and human resources areas, I know that both views are inaccurate, or at the most only partially true. Yet, government bureaucracies have contributed to this perception by creating overly complex hiring processes and by not encouraging (and even discouraging) those with diverse skills and backgrounds to apply. Whereas the motivation is usually a good one (i.e. fairness) the process itself can become unduly cumbersome, and the cycle can perpetuate itself. Government employment provides fantastic opportunities for individuals to work on solving important and complex problems. The scope of the work is broad and multi-faceted.

What can governments do to build a diversity of perspectives into its workforce? What every good organization should do:

1. Conduct strategic workforce planning. In my work with governments, I've noticed that this is one thing that most find difficult to do. In the private sector, identifying and promoting a high potential candidate is a relatively straightforward process. However, in government, recruitment is based on fairness and merit and each position is filled based on a transparent, competitive process. It can sometimes become a tortuous and time-consuming process for the manager. As such, officials often don't focus on individuals and let the process take over. What results are gaps in leadership and a lack of readiness for change.

One of our clients faced this situation when she was informed that 2 senior executives were retiring within in a year. She realized that she hadn't planned for this, nor had she thought about how to prepare for future executive vacancies. The executive team hadn't focused on projecting their workforce need by department and position. They had a general sense of the situation but that wasn't good enough. They needed to know with some precision where the vacancies would occur and who was in the pipeline to fill them. This is becoming even more important as the "baby boom generation" enters retirement. In this case, we helped them to develop a more effective information strategy system that would project future workforce demand and projected vacancies. With an evidence-based system, they could direct their resources to true vacancies and most effectively invest in workforce development. We then built a 2 year senior leadership training program with a yearly intake so that the client could begin building capacity in the system. Future leaders would begin to fill the pipeline, recruitment would be strategic and the training would reinforce the government's commitment to its staff.

2. Build your brand. In the past, the government mindset was one that clearly distinguished itself from business, and many civil servants were clear about not wanting to be anything like business. Yet, government and business are partnering with more frequency through private-public partnerships in service delivery, building and operations. Marketing government as an employer of choice is nowon the public sector's radar and is fundamental to innovation and leading edge thinking.

Government recruiting and marketing recruitment material has to be customized to appeal to different audiences and different target groups of employees. The private sector understands that they have to compete for top talent and they invest the resources to go after them. The public sector has to begin to do the same.

3. Understand your employer proposition. What does your organization offer to potential candidates and what is your employer value proposition? Articulating this clearly is important as governments have to differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace. It's important to define the organization's culture and its impact on the community, policy, regulations and strategic direction. What do employees find satisfying and rewarding about working for a particular agency and what keeps them there? Research confirms that money is not a long-term motivator and that employees are looking for meaningful work. Communicating with candidates about what that is significant about a particular government agency or organization is useful in helping candidates envision this in their futures.

4. Streamline the application and hiring process. You've done all the right things, you've got the right materials, you have perfected your employer value proposition and your branding is clear and effective. You have a group of fantastic candidates who can see their futures with your government group and then they have to navigate the byzantine application and selection process. Often, all your efforts are wasted as talented candidates come across an onerous and painful hiring system. Only the most motivated tolerate this frustrating and demanding process.

Recently, a colleague described the application process she underwent to apply for a Vice President position at a local municipality. The first step consisted of re-entering all the details of her resume on to the municipality's website- a one hour process. Then she had to answer a series of in-depth questions about her ideas and thoughts about the municipality's strategies- a two hour process. Remember- this is just to apply. After 3 hours, she finally could click submit. Most busy candidates would not have bothered or would not have had the spare time to commit to the application process. As we know, a good candidate is often a busy candidate.

In other cases, I've had clients who know who is the best person for the job, but they can't be sure that the person will get the position through the open competition process. Often, governments have screening criteria that prioritize seniority in the queue, affirmative action and other criteria designed to build a more representative workforce. Often there are first priority "affected" people who have recently lost their position in the civil service through downsizing. They must be screened out before other candidates can even be considered. While nobody would argue with these are admirable goals, on a practical level it often means the person with the most experience is often by-passed for somebody who fits the 'representative group' criteria. Rather than hire the inexperienced person, many managers allow the position to go unfilled or take extraordinary and creative steps to go around the system.

It doesn't help that government itself can be dysfunctional As the Peter Orszag writes in The Atlantic writes, weakness in the leadership ranks of the civil service causes smart people to avoid government jobs. The public service could use some navel-gazing and soul searching.

Getting rid of unnecessary obstacles is increasingly important as governments compete with the private sector for the brightest and the best. Some obstacles can only be removed at the government-wide level. Others require a fundamental shift at the most senior political levels of government to allow the public service to be more flexible and responsive in the facing of a change human resource landscape. Governments need innovation and new thinking to solve the newest dilemmas we are facing. These four strategies take them part of the way there.