We want you: Recruiting and hiring for government digital services

U.S. Digital Service
Photo: U.S. Digital Service

If government truly wants to transform digital services and effectively serve the public at scale, it must start with how it attracts and retains top technology talent.

For generations, the government typically recruited people for their entire working career, just like any other large corporation. Times have changed. Now, no-one expects a job for life. Companies have changed how they recruit to handle this new economic reality. However, government doesn’t do much recruiting, and its convoluted hiring process discourages many, particularly in-demand digital designers and technologists, whose skills are highly-leveraged and well-compensated for.

Typically with government, a job opening is created — usually with dated skills requirements and classifications — then posted to a random location on a website or, at best, a privately-run one focused specifically on government job seekers.

The federal government consolidates its job openings on USAJOBS, which has improved greatly since its past troubles, but technologists — unless you’re a career bureaucrat or have nowhere else to leverage your COBOL skills — are less likely to use this as a channel for seeking employment.

More than one person I spoke with for this post used the word “calcified” to describe the government’s approach to hiring and recruiting.

A 2017 NextGov analysis of U.S. Office of Personnel Management federal workforce data shows a concerning trend with respect to technologists. According to the report, the federal government “employed roughly 1.8 IT workers age 60 or older for every IT employee under 30 years old in 2007, but that ratio more than doubled over the next 10 years, widening to 4.5 IT specialists age 60-plus per employee under 30 by 2017.”

And a 2018 California Department of Technology annual report found that 38% of current state government IT employees are at retirement age or will be within the next five years.

As older government employees begin to retire, the public sector will have to escalate and re-imagine its recruiting efforts, as well as streamline hiring in order to fill the ensuing gaping void. On top of all this, it will still have to compete with the private sector’s increasing demand — and lower barrier to employment — for high-tech labor.

As former U.S. Digital Service Head of People Operations Jennifer Anastasoff and former Acting Head of People Operations Jennifer Smith wrote in “Mobilizing Tech Talent: Hiring Technologists to Power Better Government,” published in September 2018 by the Partnership for Public Service:

“In order to address this problem, the government must prioritize recruiting and hiring senior leaders and employees with modern technical experience and know-how—experts who can prevent systemic failures, fix broken services, launch new digital initiatives and capitalize on emerging technologies.”

In researching and speaking with people who have served or are currently serving on, and in some cases have served on multiple digital teams, key themes emerged:

  • Start at the top
  • Prioritize diversity
  • Build the talent team
  • Define the skills
  • Create options
  • Form the pitch
  • Be transparent about the process
  • Promote the culture and people
  • Recruit outside the box
  • Hire for EQ
  • Measure and optimize
  • Empower existent staff
  • Modernize the bureaucracy

Start at the top

The time has come for the C-suite to genuinely know what it’s doing with respect to digital strategy.

We can no longer afford to rely on senior-level government leaders who know how to effectively use IT buzzwords and position themselves publicly as innovators, only to witness their ineffectiveness in private. If agency leaders, chief information officers and chief technology officers only bring to the table administrative or myopic IT experience , they will continue to be the ultimate blockers to successful project delivery. These positions must be filled with qualified people who have hands-on experience, can direct strategy and can call bullshit when they see it.

This need also applies to other administrative functions of government, such as human resources, legal, procurement, that factor into the success of digital implementation.

As Anastasoff and Smith write in “Mobilizing Tech Talent”:

“Agency chief information officers should be highly skilled technological managers who can successfully handle existing technical operations, infrastructure and services. They should be able to work effectively with leaders across the organization to modernize service delivery and the approach to buying and implementing technology infrastructure. Crucially, they also should be able to alter the expectations of government digital services. … Optimal candidates will have led organizational migrations from old systems to modern ones and have a track record of collaborating successfully with operations, product and engineering leaders to support the delivery of digital services. … Ultimately, the goal is to raise the bar for what is expected of senior executives, and this starts by hiring people who know what is possible.”

More and more, the digital adeptness of senior government leaders, particularly appointed ones, will be a strong reflection of the savviness of those issuing these appointments.

Prioritize diversity

“One of the core values underpinning the work of [UK] GDS is to ‘reflect the society we serve’,” writes UK GDS Director General Kevin Cunningham on the GDS blog. “We aim to help government work better for everyone and will only achieve this if our organisation is as diverse as the society we serve.”

A strong emphasis on team diversity, particularly with the scale digital has on reach, must be explicit, authentic and public. Examples of this include GDS’ minority-focused internal networks, hiring protocol and appointment of a diversity and inclusion manager, 18F’s Diversity Guild, and public, emphatic blog posts such as Cunningham’s and USDS’ “USDS + Lesbians Who Tech.”

These efforts aren’t without merit. According to a November 2018 USDS diversity report, 28 percent of the team was minority, “and striving to increase that,” with 44 percent self‑identifying as female, including 61.5 percent of the leadership.

As Matt Spector writes in “Building Better Digital Services Team”:

“It’s critical to build a digital services team that reflects the diversity of the population it serves. Teams that do can leverage broader perspectives and experiences in design processes. They will be far better-equipped to focus on and identify user needs. They will have more credibility with the public service and the public. While hiring standards for this kind of diversity can created a challenge, the best digital services teams practice what they preach.”

Build the talent team

With the goal of identifying how to effectively hire high-quality people quickly, in-house talent teams are a requisite for recruiting and hiring at the genesis of new digital service organizations. The amount of energy and resources needed to proactively find and onboard diverse, top-level talent is beyond the scope of traditional government HR teams, and this cannot be left to an external department with little to no cultural ties to the primary organization.

Having said that, digital talent teams also should be the conduit for educating human resource departments — often wedded to traditional, stringent protocol — on the unique hiring needs and goals of the digital teams and working closely with them to ensure they’re aligned with their agile ethos.

Again, Anastasoff and Smith write in “Mobilizing Tech Talent”:

“The Digital Services found that the best way to do this was to create their own talent teams to manage the recruiting and hiring process in-house, meet all compliance requirements including veterans’ preference and coordinate with agency HR teams when necessary, rather than rely on HR to manage the whole process. The teams are intimately familiar with effective industry practices, prioritize active recruiting, provide an excellent candidate experience and lead a rigorous selection process based on technical evaluation by subject matter experts.”

As former USDS team member John O’Duinn said, “The recruitment team could speak the languages of government HR and private sector HR fluently. Knowing what was ‘normal’ for private industry, helped them set candidate expectations, even for silently assumed topics. Just as importantly, they could work well inside government to help track and speed up the hiring process wheels whenever needed.”

Define the skills

Digital service teams require a new set of skills and roles, and these must be effectively outlined and described in today’s language rather than in the outdated or non-existent traditional government classifications and descriptions.

Baseline skills, as USDS describes, include working experience with:

  • Software development
  • DevOps and site reliability engineering
  • Engineering management
  • Product management
  • Product design
  • User experience and user interaction design
  • Content design
  • Contracting and technology acquisition expertise
  • Technical recruiting and talent operations
  • Product counsel
  • Navigating bureaucracy and policy
  • Communications

Note: I intend to address deeper nuances of digital delivery team make-up — skills and roles — in a future post.

Create options

The reality of some teams, particularly in their infancy, is that digital service organizations will need to get creative with enticing technical expertise.

Leveraging creative ways within the civil service structure, particularly for shorter term commitments that align with the length of the project, is a way to bring in new faces and expose them to the work with the hopes they stay but, at minimum become another vocal, public champion for the cause.

Examples of this include the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, which served as a feeder for 18F, and the USDS tours of duty.

Form the pitch

The downsides of applying for and working in tech-related government jobs are obvious: cumbersome hiring process, less pay, general negative perception of government and technology challenges are less cutting edge.

But the upside of a government job appeal to those who yearn for work with a greater purpose, strong sense of service and camaraderie of those doing the same.

The impact technologists can have internally and externally is exponential. Very few places can you work and make decisions that have an impact on many, and often in your own community. Technologists looking for a challenge and chance to leverage their multifaceted digital talent, especially given that government work requires this, will be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity.

As Matt Spector writes in “Building Better Digital Services Team”:

“Digital services teams shouldn’t underestimate their power to recruit—because finding qualified people for transformative public services isn’t a competition on salary or title, but on impact and mission. Recruitment rests on an appeal to a sense of duty, a desire to make the world better, and an opportunity to achieve change at scale.”

Service is the fundamental pitch, and digital teams must lead and emphasize this every chance it gets.

It’s as simple as the USDS motto “Solving big problems” or “You’ll Never be the Same Again.”

It’s also important to be frank about the work.

“My pitch is also honest: this work will be hard,” says San Rafael (Calif.) Director of Digital Service and Open Government Rebecca Woodbury. “You will get frustrated. but it’s worth it, because you are making things better. We are building a great team. If you want to be a cog in a well-oiled machine, this is not the job for you, but if you want to fix things and enjoy a challenge – you will love it here.”

Be transparent about the process

Government employment hiring is cumbersome and anyone would be exasperated by the process. It’s important for digital service teams to expose this so that, when knowing what to expect, there’s less room for uncertainty and anxiety that goes with a job search. Set the expectations so there’s less of this.

This includes the interview process, pay, benefits, offer and onboarding.

TTS (18F) does a great job of the latter, as well as outlining benefits, leave, and professional development and training processes. Canada also does a great job of setting expectations and providing clarity, as does USDS.

For interviews, it’s important to include subject matter experts. The 18F Core Values interview guide is a comprehensive resource for better vetting the technical skills of applicants, and incorporating technologists into interviews adds depth to the filtering and help HR understand needs beyond checking qualification boxes.

Former USDS team member Jeff Maher also recommends training for skills-specific interviewees so they are more adept at interviewing. Talent teams should train them “to be good interviewers that know how to ask questions that dig deep and improve their ability to recognize implicit bias.”

“This risk of not doing this is that even if all the others things come together, the wrong people get hired because the interviews were bad, and bad or poor-fit humans make for ineffective service delivery,” says Maher.

Promote the culture and people

Getting proactive with outreach shows the people and process involved in delivery and humanizes the institution of government. Essentially, you’re building trust with prospects — and the public — that your organization truly cares about the mission, is competent and a great place to work.

Proactive outreach includes posting photos of the people and events, interactions — as UK GDS does on Flickr and USDS on Instagram — and blogging, which UK GDS and 18F do frequently.

As the UK GDS says, “blogging helps us all be better civil servants.”

Recruit outside the box

Typically governments “post and pray,” as Anastasoff told me, when looking to fill job openings, and there’s not much of an effort beyond this to proactively seek top talent.

Digital service teams must leverage personal networks, civic technology focused events, design and coding meetups, political technology organizations and speaking and boothing at conferences to get the word out. While doing this, they must be mindful to be diverse in their efforts, so as to not create monocultures. This means nurturing diverse personal networks that trust you, long before you post your job opening.

And, as Anastasoff told me, at USDS “it was everyone’s job to recruit.”

Hire for EQ

Of course, it’s important to hire for TQ (technology IQ), but EQ (or emotional intelligence) is critical for digital service teams, especially when working in stagnant or toxic cultures, time-sensitive or failing projects, some that may be high-profile disasters.

The last thing you want on a project, particularly one with high stakes and emotions, is an arrogant technologist parachuting into a project, who thinks they are smarter than everyone else and can’t quickly foster trust with the team who happen to be the world’s leading experts in that specific existing domain, existing technology and hidden gotchas after years of hard-learned experience.

As John O’Duinn told me, “That rarely ends well.”

For high stakes projects, people need to quickly trust each other’s technical competence as well as their ability to work well with others in times of stress. Members of these teams, and leadership, must commit to emotional intelligence — empathy, humility, patience, sense of community — and value these traits as much as they do for TQ.

Measure and optimize

In a page pulled straight from the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, “Use data to drive decisions (Play 12),” it’s important that talent teams continuously measure progress on hiring effectively and efficiently.

In talking with Anastasoff, she emphasized the importance of recruiting and hiring metrics and continuously honing in on what’s working and what’s not, including assessing how the process works, how long things take, where the blockers are, and then fixing them.

As a result of its diligence, the USDS talent team was able to lower the average number of business days from application to offer from 152 (2015 Q1) to 34 (2017 Q2).

If the federal government can optimize for talent onboarding, anyone can.

Empower existing staff

One of the challenges with digital service projects is the support time stamp, such as the way USDS works with agencies. With the exception of longer-term commitments, like Defense Digital Service or Digital Service at VA, there is a set window of onboarding, delivery, handoff, and then on to the next project. Helping to build internal capacity and maintain continuity is critical.

As Sasha Magee, former 18Fer and now technical director for San Francisco Digital Services told me, digital service teams “can’t be big enough to impact an impact by themselves.”

While some can’t stay long-term due to the nature of delivery projects, or won’t, because they’ve committed to time-limited tours of duty, others will, and they may be there for a long time. The long-term success of digital depends on how prepared and bought in those who stay retain the skills and culture needed to sustain and thrive.

Creative recruiting and hiring will help, but in order for digital success to scale, there must be a focus on upgrading current staff — introducing new tools, communities of practice, training, handbooks — but also, just as important, helping them grok and adopt the culture of digital.

Ultimately, the onus is on these people to re-invent their cultures, operations and themselves, build digital teams of their own, educate and push leadership to evolve and adapt, and positively contribute to the future of public service leadership.

Modernize the bureaucracy

Some governments, such as California, are starting to come to terms with these lackluster hiring processes, and the increasingly critical impact they have on effectively recruiting and retaining qualified people.

California launched its Civil Service Improvement initiative in 2014. As part of this effort, in 2017, the state published a civil service improvement white paper, “The House We Are Building,” and reported to the state legislature an outline of the efforts made to streamline the state’s hiring process, including consolidating IT-related job classifications.

In January 2018, California consolidated 36 information technology job classifications into nine new ones. The state also reclassified data-related skills late last year.

“Information technology is a dynamic, constantly changing field,” said Government Operations Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer at the time. “This class consolidation plan gives the state modern descriptions and the structure needed to recruit and retain skilled information technology employees.”

And of its civil service reform efforts, GovOps proclaims on its website:

“An improved civil service system will produce a capable and engaged state workforce that is able to adapt to new challenges in serving the people of California and will reflect the diversity of the population it serves,.”

GovOps highlights key areas where the state is doing this.

Recruitment:

Making it less complicated to get a state job

Rewriting and eliminating outdated and onerous laws and personnel rules restrict hiring qualified candidates

Creating a state workforce that looks like the Californians we serve

Developing incentives and targeted recruitment strategies to attract college graduates

Retention/development:

Developing training structure to improve skills and provide upward mobility

Engaging employees and promote work-life balance for more productive employees

Compensation:

Thorough evaluation of full compensation and salary scale compaction issues

Addressing executive compensation gap with local government and related retention and recruitment issues

If meaningful civil service reform is to happen, it will be on a policy front that proactively addresses compensation, job descriptions and the bureaucratic categories under which they reside. Essentially, what’s needed is a global movement for a “Digital Government Jobs Modernization Act” at all levels of government.

Much sooner than later, political, bureaucratic government and union leaders everywhere should look to California’s efforts to address this in their own jurisdictions. If they are truly committed to modernizing today’s workforce, recruiting the next generation of technology innovators and effectively serving the public, they must get proactive.

Future of government work

Some argue governments must think more different, from distributed teams, pooled resources, and expanded use of microconsulting.

Distributed, remote work, especially in areas where resiliency planning and geographic representation should be baked into culture and operations. 18F, with its flexible telework and virtual worker policy, was able to attract people from all across the United States by stretching beyond the borders of a physical office space. John O’Duinn, formerly of USDS, wrote the book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart,” focused on the improved hiring, retention, disaster resilience and other organizational benefits of this growing trend.

And while the move to hire full-scale, internal teams is the trend, microconsulting, could be a more agile, affordable, sustainable solution, especially for smaller, local governments and short-term projects.

Perhaps, as e.Republic Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler writes, “your best employees won’t work for you in the future.” After the social contract changed, and with the current generational workforce change, most private companies and most employees already work with a “no more job for life” mindset.

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It won’t be easy, but it will positively impact more people than you may imagine, including yourself.

As the much-quoted adage in civic tech goes, “No one is coming. It’s up to us.

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About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and co-founder/CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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