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Rocking the State: Human Resources

In the last decade, technology has transformed business, media and education. Telecommuting and web conferencing are increasingly common solutions to the problem of expensive travel. New applications like Twitter and Facebook make it easier for people, businesses and brands to connect. Leaving aside the question of paper books, there are few reasons to mourn the “dead tree” system of publishing, and that is only one of the ways digital and social media will change society in the years to come.

That’s hardly news to many businesses, but one of the industries most in need of structural and cultural improvements—local governance—still struggles with strong biases against digital media, social media and change in general. Among the forces preventing local governments from adopting digital technologies and new applications: concerns about intellectual property, preservation, accessibility and technical support; a generally weak information technology infrastructure; and administrators who are uncomfortable with the idea of mobile or social media technologies in the workplace.

It doesn’t need to be this way. If they implement social and digital media programs now, local governments are poised to take the lead in the social media revolution for the following reasons:

• While many other industries will struggle to survive the next decade, government is expected to grow.
• Budget pressure will force many smaller government agencies to explore alternate forms of communication, public education and advocacy.
• A large pool of highly skilled, highly educated, media-savvy young workers is already available to government agencies at bargain rates.
• Small government agencies–especially those with significant public access, like libraries and employment organizations–could be ideal testing environments for new software, applications and software. By participating in research and development, government agencies can influence both raw software development and emerging standards for social and digital media in both large public programs and private enterprise.

What emerges is a future in which small governments and state agencies look–and function–like technology start-ups, incubating new ideas and delivering improved services to the people who need them most. Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about how state governments can seize advantage of new applications, changes in corporate culture and a new generation of media-savvy younger workers to build a culture of flexibility and competence over the next decade.

This week: Three emerging trends in human resources that could help governments modernize and minimize.

1. Rise of the contractors

The next generation of workers generally cannot expect the same types of jobs—or the same social and institutional safety nets—that their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Even if the economy radically improves over the next decade, the era of working for one company is over. Workers of all ages and income levels can be expected to maintain multiple streams of income and accept all opportunities. Going forward, independent contractors are going to become an increasingly large part of the permanent, skilled workforce.

Salary costs are one of the most expensive investments for any organization. Governments have already dealt with budget cuts by reducing the number of salaried staff positions. However, demands on government agencies are expected to rise over the next decade. Contractors are a natural choice to fill the demand gap.

Since many government programs are funded on an annual basis, making independent contractors a core component of the workforce makes sense. Contracts can be renegotiated or concluded at appropriate times without the painful moral and political cost of layoffs.

Slightly higher contract rates are offset by much lower costs in terms of benefits, and some contractors may welcome the opportunity to work on different projects with different agencies or at different levels.

Agencies can experiment with a contracting culture by putting an unfilled position or new project up for contract bidding. A project that is currently on hold may be able to move forward with a contract hire. Research, data entry, design projects–including web site design and application development–work-flow development, paperless transitions, digitization, storage, information technology and information organization are all activities that are well-served by contract workers. And these types of jobs will be important to all government agencies in the near future.

In some cases, true work-for-hire may not be a feasible business model. However, agencies can still benefit from the energy of contracting culture. A county government, for example, could ask several agencies to compete for a new project or program. Or an agency director could reserve a few thousand (or even a few hundred) dollars every year to fund a new project, which individual employees could “bid” on with a formal project proposal. These can foster the spirit of innovation without workers feeling like they are being put at risk.

2. Flexible hours and telecommuting

Many agencies are reluctant to embrace telecommuting as an alternative to office work. Managers may not believe that employees will work as hard without direct supervision, and the benefits of a brick-and-mortar office cannot be overstated. However, physical plant expenses continue to rise; along with staffing costs, they constitute the majority of agencies’ administrative budgets. Implementing a regular telecommute day, or offering more distributed services (e.g. a mobile office or access point) is a solution that can benefit employers, employees and the public. Furthermore, several studies have demonstrated that a well-implemented “short-workweek” or “work at will” model can result in improved morale and productivity.

Flex time will not work for every worker or every agency. However, asking workers to work from home—or from a mobile office—one day a week, or even one day a month, can reduce costs by tens of thousands of dollars every year.

Concerns that workers would abuse or misuse this time can be alleviated with strict project deadlines and frequent check-ins. As an additional benefit, building mobile connectivity into the office culture will make it much easier to connect with employees during emergencies and natural disasters.

3. Millennial might (maybe)

Also known as “Generation Y,” Millennials—now in their late teens and early twenties—are on track to become the best-educated, best-connected, most technologically savvy and least employed demographic in the modern workforce.

Several years of unemployed college graduates are now competing with each other for entry-level jobs, while older experienced workers are increasingly willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. Jobs that might have gone to young workers in the past are now scarce resources. While the national unemployment rate hovers near 10 percent, the unemployment rate for young workers is closer to 20%.

But tough times for younger workers translate into a gold mine for government agencies, who can now choose from several—or several dozen—highly qualified applicants for entry-level positions or contract work.

Young college graduates are generally more likely to trust the government and more likely to have participated in some kind of public service or political campaign. They are also much more likely to have created and distributed some form of digital media than older workers. Since many college courses are online, Millennial graduates are also more likely to have regularly participated in some kind of online or distance meeting, which may mean that they are better able to handle the social and psychological challenges of telecommuting. Their attitudes toward work and family life might also make them open to contract work, shorter hours or slightly lower salaries, especially if government agencies can offer more benefits, relief from debt, or better retirement security.

For these reasons hiring from the pool of Millennial workers has an immediate benefit to government agencies. It is also an investment in the future. At the moment, government agencies have an opportunity to compete on equal or better footing than the private sector for the most talented young workers. Employing a large group of highly educated, talented Millennials now will help ease the burden on agencies as Baby Boomers retire and demands on the government increase.

Do you agree or disagree? What are some other ways the changing workplace culture can benefit government agencies? Share your experiences in the comments section.

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