Dec 31 2009

In the Beehive

What's most important to employees, and how can agencies provide it?

The government’s workforce has been an issue and priority for federal executives for some time. Almost every recent survey probing these execs’ concerns cites the current and future workforce as a significant challenge.

What’s fueling these concerns? Federal chiefs point to a looming retirement wave and difficulties recruiting new employees, retaining existing workers and motivating current employees to higher performance.

Many communities of federal executives have focused on how to address these concerns. For example, the CIO Council created an Information Technology Workforce Committee that has been active in developing skills assessments, career planning, training, industry-government exchange programs and even scholarship programs for high school students.

Recently, House and Senate lawmakers announced plans to introduce legislation to create a public-service academy on par with the nation’s military academies. The objective would be to create a corps of well-trained, highly qualified civilian leaders. Like the military academies, this public-service academy would be free to students nominated by members of Congress.

Expensive proposals such as this underscore the depth of the federal workforce challenge. But what is the root of the problem? Are the steps being taken having a significant effect? If not, what needs to be done?

When it comes to making federal employment an attractive option, I find myself thinking as an employee: What is it that would attract me to become a federal employee or to stay in the civil service? Here are 10 factors:


I once heard a quote attributed to Ross Perot that has stuck with me, “You manage inventory, but you lead people.” Leadership embodies the capacity to set a strategy and direction for an organization or endeavor and to inspire those involved to work toward completing it. Employees want to be inspired; they want assurance that their individual contributions will be joined with those of their peers to accomplish positive results. Does your agency have leaders who inspire workers to achieve the mission?


If leadership is the ability to inspire, management is the relative capacity to ensure that the functions of an organization work. When they don’t, employees become frustrated. To bypass unreliable functions, enterprising employees develop workarounds. In your organization, do the management and mission functions work and help employees do their jobs, or are they barriers to accomplishing work?

Work Environment and Culture

Employees want to feel supported, valued and wanted. Agencies that engender that type of environment typically have mentoring or coaching programs that bring new or less experienced

employees together with veteran civil servants. The size of an organization, whether it operates in a centralized or decentralized manner and how it embraces new employees all affect an agency’s culture. How would you describe the work environment at your agency? What type of culture does it provide?

Career Development

Employees are drawn to organizations they believe will invest in them — through training, advanced-degree education and certification programs. Federal training budgets are often modest-sized at best and among the first accounts cut during budget reduction drills. Think about your organization: Are the training polices and budgets appropriate to meet career development needs? If you were considering employment with your organization, would the availability of training attract or repel you?

Nature of the Work

Employees want interesting and challenging work assignments related to their field of expertise. They also want to see a career path toward senior positions within this field. Is the work at your agency interesting and challenging in clearly defined areas of expertise?

Can you discern a series of career progressions doing this work?

Intrinsic Value of Work

In addition to interesting work, employees want their efforts to help others and to result in societal benefits. Many federal programs assist constituents, especially those challenged by economic, medical or other conditions. Do the employees at your agency gain a special return from the intrinsic value of the work they perform, as manifested in the benefits that others receive from it?

Pay and Benefits

Salary and benefits remain an important component of any employment decision. The government pay scales match up well with private-sector scales at some levels but not well at others. By and large, government compensation, especially at senior levels, is less performance-based than comparable industry pay. Most employees — public and private — pay for their benefits via some form of cafeteria plan; federal health programs are considered superior from a cost-benefit perspective to those in the private sector. As a federal employee, how do you believe you are paid compared with the private sector for a comparable position and experience level?

Individual Responsibility

Many employees seek career opportunities that afford them significant individual responsibility and authority over what they do. How does your agency rate from this perspective? Do you have the flexibility and support to perform at your highest level?

Location of Work

Commuting in a large city can be stressful and expensive. Many employees find suburban locations or the ability to telework attractive. Is your organization flexible in this regard? Is it comfortable with a mobile workforce?

Perception of the Employer

Workers want their employers to be perceived as good organizations and good places to work. This has been a problem for the government. In survey after survey, students report a lack of interest in working in government. This negative perception dates back at least to the mid-1970s, when politicians campaigned against the Washington bureaucracy and bureaucrat bashing became a favored tactic.

Of these 10 factors, I believe the top challenge in making the government an employer of choice remains changing how would-be workers perceive federal employment. The government needs to reach out to prospective employees during their formative years. This is an important challenge and requires a sustained strategy.

Students are most influenced by the media they embrace: music, sports, movies, television, the Internet. The government must use these same media to change the impression students have of the government as an employer.

We have all witnessed the impact of media. How many people chose to become doctors and lawyers after first seeing TV shows portraying those professions in an exciting manner? Why not expose young people to the excitement and rewards of government work? Having spent time in both the public and private sectors, I know federal employment has a lot to offer. Let’s make our young citizens aware of the opportunities — using their preferred media.