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Retaining talented staff in the public sector

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Sue Harley, Managing Director of IQdos, reveals practical ways to keep public sector staff happy and loyal.


Retaining talented staff members is vital for the continued success of public sector programmes and projects. As your greatest asset, employees need to know they are valued, respected and rewarded, not just told. You might be surprised at just how much you can achieve by investing in workplace development, which is very important in this economic climate. With the average cost of recruiting a member of staff running into thousands, retaining and developing your staff is a much more cost effective option.

Recruitment and retention is a major challenge for the public sector. The sector is facing more scrutiny with Best Value and the Audit Commission’s new Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) for local authorities.

Two recent reports – the Audit Commission’s report ‘Recruitment and Retention- a public service workforce for the twenty-first century 2002’ and the ‘Local government workforce development plan 2001-2004’- show that the public sector is failing to recruit and retain good staff (particularly in the South East), with major skill shortages in local government, government services, nursing and education. The number of recorded vacancies continues to outstrip supply and difficulties in filling positions are reported across all sectors and skill groups.

The need to motivate staff and build confidence is vital. 42 per cent of public sector workers in the Audit Commission’s report into recruitment said making a positive difference is the single biggest factor for choosing their job.

But how can you make sure you retain star players? IQdos has worked with a number of government agencies including Warwickshire County Council and the Crown Prosecution Service to implement work development strategies. No matter which public sector area you work in, you’ll find useful tips here to help you boost your organisation.

1) Be clear about what you are trying to achieve

What are your organisation’s goals? Do you have an inspiring vision for staff? Successful public sector services are those that know why they operate and what they stand for. The audit commission report into recruitment and retention in the public sector found that many staff have no idea how they contribute to the big picture in their organisation. Being undervalued can tip the balance between staying and leaving.


2) Communication

Regular communication is vital. Is the staff aware of the organisation’s goals and how their personal performance goals contribute? Communicate all changes whether large or small, good or bad. Ensure the staff is fully involved in the organisation’s processes.

3) Recognise success

If you’re asking for exceptional performance, show exceptional appreciation in return. This creates goodwill and increases morale. It is now recognised that although financial reward is important, job satisfaction and personal recognition is critical to employees and can result in a greater level of commitment. The Audit Commission’s report into recruitment and retention highlighted that few people felt pay influenced their choice of job, but making a difference did. A recent survey by IRS Employment Review (August 2002) highlighted that recognition of contribution is an important factor in the workplace, with 70 per cent of respondents citing relationships with line managers or supervisors as key.

4) Regularly measure performance

Appraisal systems and performance management tools provide a valuable framework with which to nurture and coach staff. They allow management to tell individual members of staff that their contribution is appreciated and that their longer-term prospects for the organisation are recognised.

5) Extend the possibilities

Ongoing training is vital to any organisation in the public sector, as ongoing reform takes place. Ensure training is carried out throughout the organisation, from the most junior to the most senior level. All staff need to be reminded of key skills and training sets an example to the whole workforce that everyone can learn, whatever stage they are at in the organisation.

E-learning is an attractive option for those who want to retain talent. It provides flexible opportunities for employers to develop skills and expertise online. Online courses provide a good return on investment. Staff can log onto tailored learning programmes instead of spending whole days out at a training course that may not address their real training needs. The ‘Local government workforce development plan 2001-2004’ identified the need to provide e-learning materials tailored to local government needs. The Learning and Skills Council report ‘Workforce Development Strategy – summary of the National Policy Framework to 2005’ also identified the need to maximise e-learning for workforce development and e-learning looks set to become one of the most popular ways of developing staff.


6) Stress management

Employers need to be aware of workplace stress. Staff who are stressed at work are more likely to fall sick, perform poorly or leave. Encourage a culture of openness where concerns can be openly expressed. The audit commission surveyed former public sector workers to find out why people left the sector and found that stress was the biggest single factor. Sixty-five per cent of people surveyed by the audit commission said that having too much work was an important reason for leaving. Insufficient resources were also cited as leading to unmanageable workloads.

7) Calculate the return on investment

By training staff and nurturing talent you are saving costs. Staff will be more efficient at their jobs, and improved staff retention will cut unnecessary recruitment costs. According to the audit commission, on average, a new public sector recruit performs at only 60 per cent of their productive potential when they are first appointed, so retaining staff and their knowledge base is critical.

8) Match work experience to expectations

Ensure you know what people expect from their work. The pace and scale of reform in the public sector and the resulting levels of bureaucracy, paperwork and externally imposed targets may result in a mismatch between employees’ views of what will make a difference and their understanding of the public service reform agenda.


9) Perks

Consider employees individually and ask yourself how they would like to be rewarded. The perks don’t have to be complex, something as simple as negotiating with an existing supplier to offer staff discounts or offering staff prizes could be enough.

10) Flexible working

More workers want to strike a balance between their personal and professional lives. This can be a great motivator and boost productivity and efficiency. A reduction in working hours was the second most important factor that could have enticed public sectors to stay, according to the audit commission report into public sector recruitment. One way of addressing this is to give individuals more flexible working hours. For example some employees may be happier to work earlier in the mornings. In addition not everyone needs to come into the office every day.

Think about remote working. A survey carried out in September 2002 by the Department of Trade and Industry’s Work-Life Balance Campaign revealed that 7 out of 10 (72%) highly stressed workers do not have access to any formal flexible working practices.

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