How government can recruit innovative talent

Governments at all levels around the world are struggling with ageing workforces and difficulty recruiting new public servants. In New York City government, where I have worked for the last four years, up to one-third of 325,000 public servants are eligible to retire today. When your workforce is approximately the same size as the entire population of Iceland, how do you recruit the next generation of public servants?

As part of my most recent role at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Tech + Innovation, I was tasked with rethinking how our city recruits talent and ultimately launched NYC Tech Jobs and the new NYC Jobs website to test out new recruitment strategies. You can leverage these same strategies in helping your own government organisations attract the next generation of talent.

1. Frame your government as a social impact organisation

The majority of my graduating university class went on to work in either finance and consulting or for Teach for America. There are no two jobs more different from each other than working on Wall Street is from teaching in rural America. And yet, both options recruited the exact same type of driven, passionate student. Kevin Roose, author of Young Money, proposes that the key similarity is that each option offers a chance to do meaningful work, whether by making billions of dollars or educating the poor.

Rework, a consultant to social impact organisations on talent recruitment, frames meaningful work in terms of four core values: legacy, mastery, freedom, and alignment. While government may not be able to offer much in the way of freedom to choose how you work, government certainly offers legacy of impact (NYC is 400 years old!), mastery of new skills (learn to hack bureaucracy!), and alignment with organisational values (do good and help millions!). Frame your government as a social impact organisation and highlight exactly how a public servant can do meaningful work by improving the lives of those in need.

2. Write compelling job postings

Most government job postings are written as though the hiring organisation is actively trying not to recruit candidates. In New York City government, the headers of job postings included items ranging from extraneous to misleading information. The job description itself is often a single block of text listing vague responsibilities one after the other, with little context on how the role fits into the organisation. You wouldn’t buy a car if the advertisement was written like this, so why would anyone be attracted to a job posting written the same way?

We wrote new job postings that chunked text into bite-sized paragraphs and displayed the most important information first. We added new sections that describe the responsibilities of the department to provide critical context, while job responsibilities were rewritten in the second person to make the job more relatable.

Lastly, we simplified the minimum requirements and added in a description of the ideal candidate that includes descriptive adjectives such as “all-star,” “driven,” and “creative.” These new job descriptions are not only easier to read, but also exciting.

3. Help job seekers find the right fit

Two of the biggest barriers to landing a job in government are understanding how the hiring process works and knowing where to look for the right opportunities. As public servants, we often forget that the lingo and acronyms we use in our day jobs are all but unintelligible to the public, while the civil service process is so arcane that most senior officials don’t even understand it.

We worked hand-in-hand with human resources to determine what application process language we could simplify or remove entirely. The result is a streamlined jobs website and job description template that lower the barrier to entry.

But there are also over 30 departments and over 40 Mayor’s Offices in New York City government, with about 3,300 jobs postings on any given day. The existing search engine is unreliable and regularly crashes. Moreover, job seekers can rarely name more than one or two departments! While an environmental scientist might think to search for roles within the Department of Environmental Protection, we also wanted to help them discover unexpected and exciting roles on the Energy Management team in the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. We added a simple filter that allows job seekers to sort departments based on interests like law, transportation, and criminal justice.

4. Let your employees speak for themselves

Governments are notorious for overly scripted public relations and bland advertising. In order to recruit not only the next generation of public servants, but also those seeking to work with diverse colleagues, it’s important to peel back the curtain of government and highlight the human faces doing the work. I was by inspired the short documentary series Like Knows Like, which asks artists and designers to talk about their work and their personal struggles.

We chose three technologists and filmed short monologues with minimal editing. In one of our videos, a UX designer discusses his passion for using design to transform technology; in another, a data scientist describes the impact of her work in terms of walking through neighborhood parks. The videos come across as raw—the subjects fumble words and laugh out of awkwardness—but also very human.

5. Post where job seekers are already looking

One of the lessons of NYC Tech Jobs was the realisation that ‘if you build it, they will come’ does not hold true if no one knows about the ‘it’. We initially launched the website to much fanfare at the Code for America Summit, but viewership had the lifespan of about one week. Although social media and email marketing can help drive job seekers to your postings, if you’re trying to recruit outside of your typical talent pool, you will also need to advertise where job seekers are already looking.

The explosion of the tech sector has created an entire industry of services for recruiting talent. The services are often aimed at niche markets: Planted places customer service employees, Rework recruits for social impact organisations, and Authentic Jobs advertises openings for digital designers. The key is to identify the right job postings for the right website: post openings for developers, not for social workers, on Github Jobs. We experimented with Angel List to recruit product and analytics managers and received dozens of applications every day.

Rethinking recruitment of public servants is only one piece of the puzzle—we also need public servants who can utilise a range of skillsets such as human-centred design, systems thinking, data analysis, and community engagement. Public School, a new organisation that I’m launching, will work with local governments and universities to train the next generation of public servants to be creative problem-solvers and leverage interdisciplinary skills to solve the stickiest urban challenges. It’s time for a new model of serving the public good—but first we need the talent to get us there.

At Nesta, we also believe that governments need new kinds of human talent, skills and capabilities  to effectively deal with the issues we’re facing today. Much of our work in government innovation aims to support public organisations in building better innovation capacity and dealing with the implications for organisational practices, structures, systems and culture.

Some of these include a new ‘i-school’ for public sector innovation learning that we’re developing with Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the development of a new competency framework for public sector innovation in collaboration with the OECD. We’ll be sharing more about these initiatives over the coming months, so watch this space for more information.

Image credit: Flazingo Photos via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


Dave Seliger

Dave Seliger is a civic entrepreneur based out of New York City.