UKG Public Sector Senior Fellow Bob Lavigna is an award-winning public-sector leader, innovator, and author with more than 30 years of experience leading government organizations and programs. In his role at UKG, he advocates for, promotes, and advises on effective practices that enable government organizations to attract and retain talent. I recently chatted with Bob about the state of the public sector workforce and how government organizations can successfully navigate today’s post-pandemic new world of work.
What first attracted you to UKG and our purpose-driven approach to HCM? I’ve spent my whole career working in or with government trying to help the public sector be more effective and deliver for the American public. That’s why the UKG tagline, “Our purpose is people,” really appeals to me. I welcome the opportunity to impact the public sector on a larger scale than I’ve ever been able to do. UKG helps our public sector customers—whose main resource is their people—attract and retain talent by providing innovative technology tools to help them achieve their goals and better serve the public. So, I see coming to UKG as an opportunity for me to work with an organization that is committed to building the capacity and capability of government—and as an advocate for government, I’ll be able to help both UKG and the public sector do just that.
Speaking at the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) annual conference recently, you said, “It’s critical that public sector organizations adapt to the new world of work.” In your opinion, what needs to change in the public sector to make this happen? Why are the stakes so high?
I think the public sector is the most critical sector of the U.S. economy. It comprises 22 million people in federal, state, and local government who deliver a wide variety of essential services to the American public. To do this well, government needs to have the best talent. What we’ve seen over the last 2.5 years is an evolution of the world of work with respect to where and how people want to work. It’s been described as the desire for maximum flexibility, and if the public sector does not meet that demand, government will not be able to attract and retain the talent it needs to deliver for our nation.
So, what does that mean? It means providing flexibility for employees across the entire organization. For those who can work remotely, for example, it might mean giving them the opportunity to work remotely even if it’s a hybrid situation. For folks unable to work remotely, such as those on the front lines in areas like public works, law enforcement, firefighting, human services, and corrections, it means providing this in other ways, such as offering more flexible scheduling and leave options. Providing flexibility across the entire workforce is increasingly urgent in a hiring climate where there are more jobs than people. So, to attract people to work in government, public sector organizations have to offer flexibility. Research has shown that job ads offering flexibility attract seven times as many applicants as ads that don’t mention flexibility.
Research has shown that job ads offering flexibility attract seven times as many applicants as ads that don’t mention flexibility.
In addition, government organizations need to recruit more aggressively, including through social media, and provide a hiring process that’s more efficient and seamless. The old attitude of “we can’t recruit in government” no longer works to attract talent. And the hiring process must be more user-friendly and faster—and focus on identifying the candidates who can do the job. This means not just being fixated on years of experience or education.
Organizations also must create a working environment that allows people to feel good about what they’re doing, believe they’re contributing, and feel they’re building their capabilities. In other words, develop a high level of employee engagement, because that is the key driver, not only of performance and productivity, but also of retention. And what happens internally affects how people view the organization externally. So, if government organizations can create a high-engagement workplace based on a positive employee experience, this will not only help retention, but also attract people to government as a career. Someone said recently that the real answer to the recruitment problem is retention—and if we can retain more people in government, we won’t have to recruit as many to replace those who leave.
The real answer to the recruitment problem is retention—and if we can retain more people in government, we won’t have to recruit as many to replace those who leave.
What role does DEI&B (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) play in bringing people into the public sector workforce? I think government organizations have a particular responsibility to create workforces that represent the people they serve. We are seeing enormous demographic changes across this nation. For the first time since the U.S. census was initially conducted back in 1790, the number of white males has decreased. That’s why achieving diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is no longer just the right thing to do. Today, it is also a business imperative.
And to refer to the point I made earlier, what happens internally affects how people view the organization externally. For this reason, government needs to do a better job attracting people, especially young people, who represent the diversity of America and want to work in organizations that allow them to be who they are. A former colleague of mine likes to say that we don’t want our people to have to check their personalities at the door when they come to work—we want them to be who they are as long as who they are is appropriate for the working environment.
A recent survey revealed that 70% of people do not want to work in organizations that do not share their values—and clearly, there are important values around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. The ability to attract talented people into government depends in large part on the perception and the reality that government is committed to achieving these values.
What happens internally affects how people view the organization externally.
You’ve spent your entire career working within or around the public sector. What first attracted you to this industry? I’ve always been interested in government and politics. In the ninth grade, we took a school trip to Washington, D.C., and I was really captivated by the city. I later attended undergraduate school at George Washington University in Washington and received a degree in public affairs.
But more fundamentally, I believe in government and the ability of government to help the people it serves improve their lives, in ways that no other sector can. And for the public sector to do this well, it needs talented people. I’ve said it before, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration: when government fails, people can die. There are not too many industries that have this kind of responsibility.
But that’s the negative. On the positive side, government affects virtually everything we do every day. Most people don’t appreciate the positive impact government—federal, state and local—has on their lives. But it does make a difference in many ways, day in and day out. You know, American society was built in large part on a government that performs well and helps people improve their lives. My grandparents came to this country 110 years ago for a better life, and what our family has achieved in those 110 years could only happen in America—and that’s due in no small way to the positive role that government plays. So, for me, it’s personal.
Where will we see you next? I’ll be participating in a session on Attracting and Retaining Talent in the New World of Work at the California Public Employers Labor Relations Association (CALPELRA) Conference on November 18.