There are many forces coming together causing dramatic changes to the local government workforce. At the same time as the baby boomer generation is preparing to retire, local governments are facing huge challenges brought on by economic turmoil. As revenue remains below necessary levels, difficult decisions are being made, including reducing the workforce size and making positions more “lean” and capable of handling the changing requirements of today’s environment (technological aptitude, flexibility, etc…). Combined with the need to plan for the next generation of leaders and replacing the retiring employees, local governments face serious challenges.
On March 31, 2011, the Alliance for Innovation hosted a webinar presentation titled “The Changing Public Workplace” in an effort to provide expert advice and unique organizational perspective to help local governments combat these rising issues. The panel, consisting of Organizational Development experts from across the county, provided their organization’s approaches to dealing with these challenges. While not highlighting the entire discussion, this webinar report will broach the major themes of how local governments can cope with the challenges of today’s changing public workplace.
To begin the webinar, the Alliance posted a survey question asking the attendees to identify their greatest organizational challenge. More than half of respondents indicated that the economic downturn is the primary organizational challenge facing the local government workforce today. With 25% indicating that downsizing is the primary challenge, it is clear that the issues on most organizations’ minds are driven by a faltering economy. So how do we, as local government professionals, deal with these challenges? The answers are not easy or universal, but the following examples will jumpstart your brainstorming so you can mold your organization’s unique approach.
One of the primary, recurring examples given by the panel is focusing on organizational alignment. For example, in these difficult times, adjusting job descriptions and positions to allow for more flexibility can help smooth the transition to a reduced workforce. Gretchen Maynard, the Organizational Development Administrator for Tempe, AZ, described how Tempe has begun to focus on people’s individual strengths and applying those strengths in workgroups that function together to meet the organization’s strategic goals. By erasing the notion of departmental “silos,” Tempe has applied an organization-wide focus to tackle issues bigger than those that exist solely in one department. “What that does is create a lot of clarity for people at all levels of organization…people see themselves as a part of the solution,” said Gretchen. Essentially, the increased organizational focus has resulted in more planning—a systematic and proactive approach—instead of their past approach that relied on reacting to problems as they arose. In turn, individuals understand the need for flexibility and how their position relates not only to the department, but to the strategic initiatives of the organization as a whole.
In James City County, VA, Training and Quality Performance Coordinator Rona Vrooman indicated that they make an effort to inform prospective employee that they may be asked to work in positions and do projects outside of the main job description. By doing so, they establish an expectation for prospective employees that the demands of today’s market requires flexibility. With downsizing a common theme across local government, employees must be willing to accept new challenges and step outside of their comfort zone.
Similarly, Lisa Coburn, Arlington, TX, Organizational Development Manager, stated that their approach to the development and retainment of positions is contingent upon making sure everything they are doing aligns with the strategic goals of the organization. They focus on identifying the strategic roles and the competencies required of each position, which in turn facilitates a proactive approach to their whole organizational development. By understanding the roles inside and out, it is easier to gauge the necessary training and professional development. For example, the need for customer service training varies from position to position, but with a clear understanding of the specific competencies required, the necessary level of training can be provided without needing a one size fits all approach. Moreover, an understanding of the basic competencies required establishes a clear cut “language” by which the organization can measure performance and plan for succession.
The workplace is constantly evolving as staff reductions take place, large swaths of people retire, and multiple generations work together, but there are steps that local governments can take to ease the transition. By breaking down “departmental silos” and creating an organizational understanding of the strategic initiatives and goals, a team based environment can be created. Not only does this help help employees understand their value, but it also creates a structured expectation of the needs of each position. It is clear that the challenges of today are numerous and complicated, but with proper planning and focus, local governments can overcome and emerge smarter, more efficient, and better suited to handle the needs of the future.
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