• Opinion
  • April 30, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

How behavioural science can help fix government’s workforce crisis

Opinion: Nudging inwards can boost talent recruitment and retention

This piece was written by Elizabeth Linos, a behavioural economist and public management scholar. She is currently an assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.

In the next year, one in three US federal government workers will be eligible to retire, and millennials are not filling vacancies fast enough.

At the same time, frontline workers across the globe are struggling to balance their own wellbeing with the demands of delivering excellent public services. Social workers, teachers, correctional officers, and others are quitting at rates that range from 20% to 50% in the first two years of service.

The human capital crisis in government is no longer looming. It’s here. And it’s time to get creative about how we can recruit, support, and retain talent in the public sector.

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Switching the message improves recruitment

Take police recruitment, for example. Departments across the world are struggling to hire diverse candidates that reflect the communities they serve.

In a series of trials I ran with the Behavioural Insights Team, we found that people were no longer responding to job ads asking them to join the police “to serve their community.” It’s not that those who work in government don’t have high levels of public service motivation; of course they do. It’s just that millennials see multiple pathways for making a difference — and government might not be the main one.

So the challenge becomes: what else can we say about these types of jobs that will attract new and different people to the police? Our trials show that emphasising how difficult the job is — talking about the challenge — tripled the likelihood that someone would apply. And the rates were even higher for people of colour. We’ve now run trials in over 20 cities and found similar results.

It’s time to get creative about how we can recruit, support, and retain talent in the public sector

Well-timed nudges can also help with other parts of recruiting. Simplifying processes and sending reminders can reduce drop off of excellent candidates during the often difficult and long civil service selection process. Carefully worded emails that reduce stereotype threat can improve pass rates for people of colour, ensuring that the applicant pool remains diverse.

Social support may keep people in the job

But if we are to really solve the human capital problem, we need to make sure existing civil servants feel supported, valued, and able to deliver services.

Employee burnout has now been called a global epidemic, worsening personal health through higher levels of chronic stress, PTSD, and even alcoholism, but also impacting organisations who face significantly higher absenteeism and turnover.

While solving the underlying systemic challenges — like better pay and work conditions — are crucial here, there is strong evidence that increasing people’s social support at work can make a marked difference. Helping people feel like they have a professional community that truly understands the day-to-day challenges of public service may not only reduce burnout and turnover, it may also improve how public servants interact with the public.

I’m currently running a series of trials with frontline workers in different professions, encouraging them to write about their experiences and read about those of their coworkers. The early results are promising and suggest that there is much more to do to support employee well-being without breaking the bank.

Small tweaks to avert a big crisis

Public servants make decisions every day that determine what — and for whom — public services are delivered. If we are to deliver better and more equitable services, we need to be as innovative with our recruitment and retention initiatives as we are with government programs themselves.

The second wave of behavioural science in government should nudge inwards

It won’t be easy. Yet if behavioural science has taught us anything, it’s that even seemingly minor design choices can make a disproportionate impact on people’s decisions.

The first wave of behavioural science in government proved that small tweaks can increase people’s tax compliance, encourage people to take up anti-poverty programs, or even help people find a job faster.

The second wave of behavioural science should nudge inwards: improving the internal functions of government agencies so that those who are called to deliver services have the skills and the resources to do so. — Elizabeth Linos

(Picture credit: Flickr/Alex Proimos)


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