Last Word

Rick Bell

Public Sector Modernization Plan

Public Sector Modernization Plan


or several years I worked as a civilian contractor alongside service members at a military installation.

There was much to admire. Initially it was the unforgettable scope of ships housing 5,000 people like hulking, gray floating cities. Everyone had their jobs from running a post office to publishing the ship’s newspaper to making sure aircraft safely landed on the flight deck.

Whether it was aboard ship or on base it was clear that service members had a mission, a purpose — move with precision to serve the greater good of the organization and by extension make the country and the world a safer place to live.

The challenges facing public agencies are many, yet there are common sense, achievable ways to modernize the workplace.

For the past several years we’ve heard a growing chorus among younger workers that they too want purpose in their work. The Navy, for example, recast its tagline in late 2017 to entice what it calls the “centennial generation.”

Not only does the military provide for such a calling, the public sector also can satiate the appetite for social justice through work. Cultural concerns like collaboration, job security and mentoring also are hallmarks of public sector workplaces.

So why then, with such enticements that appeal to millennials, is there a dearth of youthful applicants applying for federal, state and local jobs?

Recruiting and retaining millennials is just one issue flummoxing the public sector today. In this issue of Workforce we examine the numerous challenges facing those involved in public sector people management, an area of human resources that seems to be overlooked despite the role government agencies play in our daily existence.

Consider that nearly 22 million Americans are public sector employees. By comparison, Walmart, the world’s largest employer, totals 2.3 million employees, while McDonald’s counts about 1.9 million workers.

Perception could play a big role. The private sector is often touted for its ability to be agile, nimble and flexible. Public agencies are often perceived as deliberate and even antiquated.

The average age of the public sector workforce is nearly 50 years old. Its technology still favors paper documents over Google docs. And many public sector budgets bear the constraints of heavy pension obligations. Despite these challenges, we found silver linings that are slowly transforming agencies toward a more contemporary workplace.

First, tapping into a younger workforce. The average time to hire among government agencies stands at 106 days compared to 45 days in the private sector. Young or old, few people have the patience in today’s job market to wait that long to hear about a new job.

Some public entities are outsourcing the bulk of their workforce while other agencies have found success by taking their recruiting to social media. It’s clear that younger workers crave a rewarding work experience and being a civil servant offers opportunities that only a handful of private sector employers can match. And in an era where younger employees cite jobs that benefit the social good as a key perk, public agencies provide that clearer vision of their agency’s mission.

Unions remain a dominant component of the management-labor relationship to determine civil servants’ compensation and benefits. Yet such negotiations still are fraught with challenges that date back a century and for many government agencies these dialogues are embedded in a workplace strategy that the vast majority of private sector employers never have to consider.

We recruited two seasoned experts to offer an inside look at brokering labor deals. Dale Pazdra, the HR director for the city of Coral Springs, Florida, and Jerry Glass, who has negotiated some 250 union contracts in both the private and public sectors, offer their perspectives from both sides of the negotiating table. The key takeaways? Build rapport, be transparent and it’s OK to take a page from the private sector.

Interestingly, the city of Memphis turned to the private sector for its new CHRO. And what did Alex Smith do? Convinced her superiors to reach for the cloud to transform the city’s archaic HR technology system.

Still, updating an HR system in the public sector does not come easy. As Smith said, “If HR is competing with the police or fire departments for project funding, police and fire will always win.”

To be clear, the challenges facing public agencies are many, yet there are common sense, achievable ways to build a more youthful workforce and modernize the workplace around them.

Like an aircraft carrier, government workplaces can’t turn on a dime. With time, patience and a little private sector innovation, the public sector can provide jobs appealing to workers’ sense of social justice while building a sustainable workforce of the future.

Rick Bell is Workforce‘s editorial director. To comment, email