How can the public sector attract and retain top people?

15/8/2023 A challenge even before the pandemic, lockdowns and the big resignation have made it harder for the public sector to recruit, keep and motivate their workforce. Peter Cudlip, Partner and Head of Public and Social Sector at Mazars, suggests ways to win the war for talent.

Hiring skilled people and keeping them happy and motivated is one of the biggest hurdles for public organisations. Our latest survey, A time of transformation, finds sector leaders paying more and more attention to this issue, with a third regarding new or revised talent attraction and retention as a top three strategic priority in the next three to five years.

In terms of what executives believe are the most central factors (‘essential’ or ‘very important’) in attracting talent to their organisation, a complex, often inter-related picture emerges (see table).

Grouping related influences together, the most important influences are:

  1. Offering stimulating and engaging work, coupled with the quality of colleagues or team members, and atmosphere amongst colleagues, a sense of teamwork and camaraderie
  2. Opportunities for career progression, with opportunities for learning and development
  3. Commitment to diversity and inclusion
  4. The organisation’s reputation or prestige and its sense of purpose
  5. Flexible hours and the ability to work remotely.

Generous pay and benefits, whilst still important (mentioned by 72% of respondents), is deemed less significant than the other factors.

So, what can public sector organisations do to build a skilled, motivated workforce?

First, offer stimulating work with inspiring colleagues in a conducive atmosphere. People enjoy being stretched, by people they can relate to and trust and who share a common purpose. In the public sector, each role either facilitates or directly impacts on changing lives for the better, especially the young and vulnerable. For example, there is the obvious example of a care worker having a daily direct effect on someone’s life, or the staff working for an energy regulator leading to a positive effect on people’s pockets. Similarly, a care worker has a direct effect on someone’s life, daily.

Second, offer a clear, fair and structured way your staff for development and career progression. Informal feedback goes a long way and often means teams are more stimulated. If you focus on praise, coaching and mentoring, the outcome will be better.

One of the biggest aspects that has been cut by cash-strapped, public organisations is learning and development (L&D). But it is about as important to your people as is career progression and closely linked. It is also more likely that opportunities for progression are based on capability than seniority.

Employees appreciate the chance to learn both core competencies and non-directly related skills and knowledge. If they’re working in HR at the Treasury, for example, why not offer courses on macroeconomic finance, as well as people-engagement training? It’s in their – and your – organisation’s interests. Similarly, managers have a duty to be role models and mentors, to share their experience. ‘Paying it back’ is part of the stewardship of the organisation.

Third, ensure diversity, equality and inclusion. Over 50% of our public sector senior-management interviewees believe their organisation had a decent programme to tackle gender diversity and sexism. And eight out of ten stated their executive committee is financially encouraged to attain gender-equality targets in the leadership team. Yet most strategic decision-making roles are still held by men: more than half of the surveyed organisations report that less than 30% of the decision makers are women.

Depending on the organisation’s resources and culture, you could recruit more women to begin with, allow flexible working for parents, provide creches, set up female mentoring and networking programmes.

It's true that many public organisations are gender – and culturally diverse – especially in local government and in the National Health Service. They’ve been fairly adroit at reflecting the community in their workforce. But more needs to be done, for example by prioritising people with knowledge of the area and its inhabitants – particularly useful for end-of-life care.

The importance of intrinsic motivation

Fourth, communicate your organisation’s good work. It’s difficult to improve a reputation overnight but it can be steadily enhanced by having a clear purpose, by being bound to a socially responsible cause. The trick is to provide – and communicate – an intrinsic motivation to candidates to apply for the job in the first instance, and for them to stick with your entity because of the beneficial nature.  

One city council, for example, was recently trying to recruit a deputy financial director at a relatively low salary compared to the responsibility the candidate would have. Instead of insisting on certain academic qualifications in the advertisement (most of which would be standard, anyway), the recruiter should have emphasised the size of the town’s substantial budget and the number of people whose lives the applicant could directly impact.

Effective employees are fulfilled by the work they and their colleagues undertake, regardless of potentially negative public reputation. This comes from good management at every level: being positive about what the organisation does – and communicating it internally and externally. Everyone, for instance, should know about – and be proud of – the provision of laptops to allow low income households to improve their learning.

Recruiting and keeping a good workforce in government and social organisations entails emphasising an inter-related package that offers stimulating work with high-calibre colleagues, fair and rapid career progression, appropriate L&D. And all for an organisation that you have ensured has positive renown.