Smashing the Hierarchy in the Public Sector

In this ever-changing economy, an organization’s survival and success hinges on the resiliency of its workforce. But how do you define and promote a resilient culture?

To digest this issue, we partnered with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services to explore workforce resilience in a time when 88% of organizations are facing disruption. Read our latest thought piece, “Building Resilience from Disruption,” to learn more about creating a resilient workforce.

With 30-40% of state employees eligible to retire in the next 5 years, public sector organizations are being pressed to find the talent, skills, and capabilities required to meet the needs of a U.S. citizen base that’s expected to grow by more than 13 million over a similar 5-year window. As the demand for public services and resources grows, “doing more with less”—a tenet commonly embraced in the private sector—simply isn’t feasible. For federal, state, and local governments to provide the services needed to meet the demands of a growing population, there’s no doubt that a transformation is required—one that will secure the skills and talent of the future workforce.

Transformation is inherently challenging for the public sector. Several unique realities that make change fundamentally slower and more difficult than in private or commercial sectors, such as:

  • Political and policy changes: It’s difficult to implement workforce strategy and significant change without broad political and cultural support.
  • Personnel and merit principals: Legacy structures and systems stand in the way of creating flat organizations and faster decision making.
  • Technology advances: Government employees are often working around older platforms and processes that prevent exposure to newer, more agile technologies and processes.
  • Finances: Budget uncertainty makes it difficult for government leadership to invest in workforce initiatives; including training, development, and retention strategies.

In our “Building Resilience from Disruption” piece with Harvard Business Review, we share approaches to improving resiliency across all industries. While the core principles of workforce transformation are universal, we believe the public sector is uniquely positioned to capitalize on one area in particular: “smashing hierarchies,” or eliminating siloes and distributing decision-making influence across stakeholders.

Public sector hierarchies and siloed ways of working are at stark contrast with the values of many representing the future workforce. In the words of a 29-year old in the workplace: “To me, being a leader is not about deference to me, but taking a position and seeing it through. I don't think I need a particular size of office to do that." By reorienting culture around collaboration and shared governance—fueled by diverse backgrounds and perspectives—public sector organizations can build cultures that engage, retain, and align with the professional values of an emerging way of working.

Rethinking hierarchies in the public sector workforce promises several benefits, both for employees and citizens as end consumers. Improved teamwork, process efficiencies, and increased agility in adapting to process changes also pay dividends with the citizen experience. With streamlined governance and shared decision-making processes, organizations can be better equipped to rapidly deploy the leading technologies and services that citizens expect from their non-governmental consumer experiences. For example, local governments can build an app that helps to identify potholes, or one that uses street data to help citizens identify parking spot availability.

As public sector organizations rethink traditional stratification in favor of distributing influence across a wider group of stakeholders, there’s a key organizational capability needed in the effort: agility. Establishing agile practices means that organizations must define new ways of working together, establish goals, determine accountability, and scale capabilities—all rooted in the end goal to better serve citizens. It’s critical that government leaders realize that agile practices go beyond software, and that incremental and iterative development can be incorporated into daily activities across all organization types. In fact, in our recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services research, 94% of business leaders believe that support of autonomy, risk-raking, agility, and innovation were keys to promoting a resilient workforce. In solving for workforce resiliency challenges, those surveyed are aligned on solutions: 96% believe in empowering teams to make decisions on their own, 95% feel it’s important to create a culture where employees feel comfortable taking risks, and 94% support instilling a sense of autonomy among employees. Although government’s mission is unique compared to that of commercial organizations, its business challenges are not.

As today’s workforce retires, we see an opportunity for government organizations to retire traditional hierarchies in favor of shared governance and decision-making—a way of working that requires collaboration and diversity in perspectives. With a reimagined organizational structure in place, public sector organizations can not only attract and retain new talent, but more nimbly provide the products and services that citizens, as consumers, expect.