Reinventing Turnover in a Hollowed-Out Public Sector

With the public sector facing a potential staffing crisis, two scholars have some basic advice for reducing turnover: help public-sector employees like and trust each other more.
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With the public sector facing a potential staffing crisis, two scholars have some basic advice for reducing turnover: help public-sector employees like and trust each other more.

Pity the public-sector human resources manager. A half-century ago, America’s best and brightest eagerly sought out government jobs, keen to give something back to their country. But today, with trust in government at a low and lousy pay compared to the private sector, attracting and retaining top people has never been harder.

Consider this warning, from a 2003 report by the National Commission on the Public Service: “Far too many talented public servants are abandoning the middle levels of government and too many of the best recruits are rethinking their commitment.”

What’s a beleaguered, underfunded public sector to do?

According to one new study, the answer is to build some serious internal sense of community. So argue Donald P. Moynihan, professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Sanjay K. Pandey, professor of public administration at the University of Kansas.

“Employees exist in a web of social relations,” explained Moynihan, “and that affects how they view the workplace and their tendency to stay or leave. If people don’t feel a strong sense of connection with fellow employees, they are more likely to leave.”

While it might sound like common sense, there has been little research on and attention to social networks in the public sector. Instead, much of the research has focused on the economics of labor markets. As a result, comparative pay differences between the public and private sector have tended to bear the brunt of the causal responsibility for why people leave the government.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that social scientists even began to look at social capital generally, and not until the last few years did public administration scholars begin thinking about its role in government employment.

Moynihan and Pandey do not dismiss pay as important. But they also point to a long behavioral-science tradition showing that humans are pretty complicated creatures who care about social relationships and what their peers think. For example, the authors cite the work of James Q. Wilson, who has analyzed why soldiers fight not for the money but because of peer expectations, to support each other out of solidarity.

They also note that many people who go into government in the first place do not do so for the money. “Many people come to work in the public sector because they see it as a place where they can fulfill an intrinsic desire to either help other people or be involved in the policy process,” Moynihan said.

The authors surveyed more than 300 employees at a dozen public and nonprofit human-services agencies in the Northeast. Moynihan and Pandey asked employees how they felt about their co-workers, how long they had been in the organization and how satisfied they were with the job, among other things. The professors also tried to measure how well employees fit with the organization in general.

The result was strong support for the claim that employees who feel a stronger sense of obligation to their co-workers were much less likely to consider leaving, both in the short term and in the long term, all other things being equal. Similarly, employees who felt that they receive significant co-worker support were much less likely to leave in the short term, all else being equal, although the estimated effect for long-term turnover intention was a little smaller.

In the paper, the scholars propose some simple changes, like more shared responsibilities, mentorship programs, special events and informal get-togethers, to improve internal networks of support and obligation.

“You can start a more employee-oriented culture,” Pandey said. “You can value people. You can create trust. These things invariably come up when people talk about the most desirable workplaces.”

Then there is the physical space of public bureaucracy.

As the National Commission on the Public Service noted, “Drab and tiny workspaces, inadequate room for storage and record-keeping, and aging lighting, heating, and air conditioning systems — too common in the federal government — seem emblematic to many employees of the low value in which they as workers are held.” Compare that to the colorful and open spaces of a Google, whose California campus has become the stuff of legend — an extreme, perhaps, but the scholars do extend their recommendations to creating a more open physical space to facilitate more informal social interactions.

Moynihan and Pandey also tested the hypothesis that employees with larger external networks — professional friends and associates outside their office — would be more likely to leave their jobs. They found less support for this, but they expressed concern that the finding may be because their measures of external networks’ participation in professional activities, such as national meetings and reading professional journals, were not accurate measures. They plan to test this more in the future.

Strengthening internal networks, however, may be easier said than done. After all, for most of the 1990s, the Clinton administration was focused on “reinventing government,” which often meant, among other things, encouraging federal employees to retire or go elsewhere.

As a result, the federal workforce shed 300,000 jobs. This, no doubt, weakened the social networks at many agencies and organizations. And with a large percentage of the federal workforce rapidly approaching retirement age, this may worsen.

Likewise, an increasing reliance on public-private partnerships and third parties has also hollowed out the public sector. It also means that those who remained in the public sector had more connections outside their organization, especially to potentially better-paying private-sector jobs. Moynihan and Pandey write that these trends “seem to undermine the ability of agency leaders to convince employees that they are part of an organization that provides value to society.”

But perhaps there is hope. Pandey is optimistic that even a little attention to reducing turnover could start a positive virtuous cycle: “If you reduce turnover, that’s good for the organization,” he said. “If you pay attention to social networks, you make the organization a good place to work for, and that’s a really powerful advertisement for public-sector work.”

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