Thinking differently to ease public sector workforce pressures

By Liz Tolcher

Workforce pressures in the form of finding, attracting, and retaining the right people have become a fact of life in the public sector. Strategic workforce planning offers the tools to make sure the people with the right skills are in the right place at the right time, well into the future.

Despite the civil service continuing to grow year on year, the pressure to boost productivity and create efficiencies to better deliver public services is high. Coupled with reported increases in public sector workers considering resigning, civil servants considering switching departments for a better ‘deal’, and a persistent and widespread conviction about long-term skills shortages across central and local government, it’s clear that workforce planning is proving challenging.

Easing the pressure

The key is to turn strategic workforce planning – comparing current skills and capabilities with future requirements and the supply available in the external market – from a periodic financial exercise into an always-on process. It should involve the whole organisation, from senior leaders right through to hiring managers. This will mean drawing insight from existing data, coupled with an openness to do things differently.

Get the whole organisation to buy in

The first step is to put workforce planning on the radar of those at the most senior levels. Leaders should understand that a long-range approach to building and sustaining the right workforce is essential to delivering effectively on commitments. This means moving the discussion towards the skills needed to deliver strategic priorities and creating confidence that there’s a supply of talent in the external and internal marketplace to meet demand.

Making workforce planning a standing board agenda item and encouraging the senior leadership team to take ownership of the topic will create momentum, moving it up the list of priorities. Creating success measures and building them into performance reviews and bonus criteria will help too.

In collaboration with a partner in the defence industry, we’ve been setting up a regular workforce planning forum, facilitated by HR, but attended by finance, strategy, procurement, and recruitment professionals as well as business leaders and sponsors. The forum offers an opportunity for people to come together, review skills gaps, and make decisions on how to attract the right people with the right skills over the next one to three years. The group also considers when and how to use contractors and how to run joined-up internal recruitment campaigns.

Exploit data

Data is a key part of easing workforce pressures. Using facts, where they exist, alongside simple hypothesis testing or predictive simulations can add further insight into strategy and business planning. We see many teams who worry about the accuracy and reliability of their workforce data. However, given the acute challenges across the civil service workforce, HR teams need to work with what they’ve got, be open to learning, and adapt approaches as data quality and flow improve over time. Starting small, for example, by understanding the external market, analysing recent recruitment activity, and the recent career progression of graduate hires helps figure out what might need to change.

Join forces to create a shared career pathway

No department or organisation is alone in facing workforce challenges, so it makes sense to join forces to tackle them. Where leaders collectively own the challenge by considering the workforce beyond their immediate team, creative solutions start to appear. Reciprocal secondments and placements, shared talent pipelines, or cross-functional working groups present as ways to create longer career pathways for employees. This ensures brilliant talent is retained for as long as possible while ensuring work is meaningful, and teams are challenged and developed. When efforts are supported by professional or industry skills frameworks, which support the use of ‘skills passports’ to track competencies and experiences across departments, the transition between roles and departments becomes easier.

Given the challenges in the public sector, working with others to develop cross-sector or cross-government workforce strategies should be part of the solution. Not only will this benefit organisations and employees alike, but also all who require critical public services. If four departments need a specific type of digital skill, offering an extended career path through these departments could attract talent with the promise of a varied and rewarding career experience with managed progression and development. It could also reduce the time and money spent on individual recruitment campaigns.

The public sector has a unique opportunity to build a coordinated strategy to create a joined-up long-term career pathway, something that could serve as a serious competitive advantage.

Look for the right people in new ways

The challenge of building the right workforce is evolving fast. Organisations’ responses need to evolve too. This means trying new approaches when data shows the old ones aren’t working.

To succeed, hiring managers will need to be open to new sources of talent, and be open to hiring someone who may not meet all the traditional requirements in a job description. Instead, they might consider someone who brings something new and different to the table.

A good place to start is by maximising graduate and apprenticeship schemes that align with long-term department goals, workplace trends, and skills that the workforce planning strategy has identified. Sharing stories of positive career experiences of younger talent and how they influence diversity and new ways of resourcing for the better can be powerful. This also supports non-traditional career routes into the public sector, that conventional recruitment campaigns don’t reach. For example, the social impact company WithYouWithMe translates the skills of ex-military people into the public sector setting. And Code4000 teaches prisoners coding skills to significantly increase their chances of employment post-release. Improving access to the sector in this way would allow organisations to tap different talent pools for transferable experience and aptitude.

The workforce pressures facing the public sector are here to stay. It’s time to seize the opportunity to use workforce planning to make a difference: by getting everyone involved, using data in the right way, creating joined-up career pathways, and looking for people in new places.

About the authors

Liz Tolcher PA workforce transformation expert

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