Has it come to your notice that recruitment in the public sector, your local government, is HOT these days?

In the words of my clients, “We are bleeding, people are dropping like flies.”

The Gray Tsunami is well underway. As a result, the executive search process for top managers has created significant competition for talent.

This is good for pay, and you.

As a consultant to the public sector in HR and organization development, I sometimes assist with search and recruitment, often that means working with the right recruiter. My work is to help them prepare for transitions. I don’t need to tell you when that preparation is non-existent, a tragic trail of failed hires is almost guaranteed.

First, you should probably know that local governments are preparing for unprecedented levels of funding from CARES Act and Infrastructure Bills. These funds will not just trickle in, they will require local governments to prepare sound fiscal policies and create detailed proposals for how funds will be used. This fact informs the kind of talent they need at the top of their organizations.

They are also challenged by the political winds that are impacting our country, so top managers need to understand the ethics of neutrality and possess the skill of working across silos and divides. 

Here are some other things to consider:

    1. Appreciate the value of a candidate who has invested in an MPA (Masters of Public Administration) or Certification by the ICMA  (International City Management Association). These are excellent filters and although the elected body may not be aware of them, you should use them. However, these candidates know where the best jobs are, so you will need additional strategies.
    2. Savvy candidates connect through professional association, and it is common practice to reach out to former managers to learn how they have been treated. Candidates will also study the videos of how elected bodies handle themselves in public meetings. So, once you are hired, you may have some rehabilitative work to do with the elected body to help them understand what they need to do to attract good candidates.
    3. Despite what elected bodies think, a professional manager is going to want and need a contract. Do your homework on how this looks in the public sector. You will be more likely to attract the best candidates.
    4. The competitive environment has inspired managers to take new jobs. You can exploit this fact by getting good survey data for your assignment. ICMA data is a good place to start but finding out what other local governments in the region are paying, particularly similar size governments, is better. 
    5. You will probably need to make a case for higher pay to the elected officials because many do not grasp the crisis being faced in the profession and workforce in general. You might start with these articles:

Finally, and most importantly, consider experienced, successful candidates in adjacent professions. For example, skilled planning or parks and recreation directors know how to manage people, projects and funding streams. Candidates that come from tangential professions outside local government may include engineers (with the public sector experience) economic development professionals, or experienced financial or HR professionals who understand technology, regulations and management.

My interest here is to help you help them. 

So let me share one last thing:  

Local government undersells itself as an employer on a regular basis. Your challenge, should you accept it, is to help them understand what makes their local government stand out. 

Ask if you can interview their staff to find out why people stay.

Local government is like a mission-driven non-profit organization except it pays better and has better benefits. If a recruiter can help the local government capture how vital the work is to the community, the work of recruiting will be, if not easy, then broadly successful. 

Total compensation has improved tremendously over the last decade because the public sector has been much slower than the private sector to transfer the costs of benefits to employees. The work environment is more flexible, even if demanding.

So, if you are interested in this niche, stay focused on total compensation, quality of work life and most importantly, community focused work.

Finally, if an elected body invites you in, but ultimately does a poor job of cultivating your trust and prefers to do it the way it has always been done, do us all a favor and tell them why you cannot work with them.

Then brush the dirt off your shoes and keep going, because in local government, you will find gold in good people and talent. Many local governments try to go it on their own. You can help them.

Nancy J Hess

Nancy J Hess is an HR & Organization Development Consultant She has been working with local government management teams to improve people processes and build HR systems since 1990. She established NJ Hess Associates in 1990 and in 2021 founded the Pioneering Change Community to bring local government managers together to tackle complex issues.