Many local governments are struggling in the post-pandemic world to recruit and retain employees. Polco, through The National Employee Survey (The NES) tool, measures local government employee job satisfaction and engagement. They report that local government employees consistently give their local government agencies low ratings on:

  • Managing low-performing employees
  • Collaboration between departments 
  • Speed of response to important issues
  • Compensation compared to similar opportunities 
  • Compensation for performance 

Survey results also point to work-life balance, morale, and fair compensation as reasons people don’t stay in local government. You may ask—what can I do to prevent my employees leaving for these reasons?

It’s important for leadership to look inward to identify ways of engaging employees to support employee satisfaction. Research shows that doing meaningful work, seeing a career path and being a part of an organization that treats staff fairly and helps employees feel connected are critical to employee engagement and retention.

There is no one magic recruitment and retention solution to fit all local governments. What works for one organization may not work for another. In my two decades of local government experience, I identified these approaches to address both employee attraction and retention:

Ways to Attract Employees:

  1. Provide a competitive salary. Salary is one of the first things prospective candidates look at when considering a new position. Regularly survey the market. Does your agency have an adopted compensation policy to stay competitive with the market? Is it up-to-date? 
  2. Spell out the compensation benefits. Include not just the annual pay, but all the benefits the organization provides. Be very clear about retirement benefits; many younger employees do not understand the benefits of a defined contribution plan and how this significantly contributes to their overall compensation. 
  3. Highlight the meaningful impact of service. In what ways will the position impact the community? Public service is an honor and it has been shown that younger employees are motivated by service, giving back to the community, and being a part of something bigger than themselves. 
  4. Spell out growth opportunities. Individuals like to have a clear vision of their career trajectory. Highlight the ways your organization values growth and what pathways the position has for advancement. It is important to counteract the perception that local government jobs are ‘dead-end’ or slow to move-up.
  5. Build a brand. Use attractive, consistent imagery and language when telling the organization’s story. Find creative ways to communicate your brand with the world, such as developing recruitment videos or brochures that bring your organization’s culture and the community to life. Prospective candidates will do their research. They will take a look at the organization’s LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook profiles. These visual assets can be instrumental in generating excitement and driving your reputation as a desirable employer. Prospective employees don’t just want to join an organization, they want to join an experience.
  6. Partner with local colleges and universities. Create a pipeline for future talent. Collaborate to advertise various types of employment opportunities; have your departments connect with the appropriate university staff to highlight pathways to employment; participate in regular job fairs; invest in pilot programs for internships and job shadowing. There are many ways to partner with local schools, it’s just a matter of reaching out. 

Ways to Retain Employees:

  1. Establish a robust onboarding process.

Pro tip: Onboarding begins before the first day and goes well into the first year. 

  1. Be welcoming. Have the new hire’s supervisor and/or department head send a welcome letter separate from and at the time of offer.
  2. Be thoughtful. Ask the new employee, before their first day, for a few fun facts about themselves (favorite color, candy or coffee, etc) and have some of those items waiting for them at their desk on their first day.
  3. Be welcoming. Introduce the employee with an organization-wide email and include a photo; walk them around the facility; take them on a tour of other city facilities and important community locales (this can be done on a monthly basis for all new hires at once to conserve resources).
  4. Be helpful. Assign a buddy for everyday questions and to provide mentorship. 
  5. Be fun and collaborative. Conduct a quarterly new hire lunch with the executive team. This provides a chance for new hires to get to know each other and the executive team, fostering a sense of belonging.
  6. Be proactive. Provide check-ins at regular intervals the first year.
    1. Regularly survey your current employees. And then follow up with an action plan! Don’t be afraid. Just because you don’t measure it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Identify your employees’ pain points and what it is they love (or don’t) about your organization. Find out why they may consider leaving and why they are staying.
  • Hold employees accountable. It is important to hold employees accountable. This builds trust that the culture and mission are valued and critical to the health of your agency. Allow underperformers or folks that are not aligned with the mission the opportunity to find another agency more suited to their needs with regular and effective evaluations. It is my experience that the evaluation process far too often gives underperformers a pass. Your employees see this and it sends the wrong message.
  • Conduct “stay” interviews. Conduct informal, regular check-ins with employees. Have a process in place to aggregate and summarize relevant feedback and share this with the executive team. 
  1. Celebrate employee successes
    1. Offer an annual employee appreciation lunch. Use this as an opportunity to celebrate milestones and outstanding employee performance. Make this a big deal, a cornerstone event that everyone in the organization looks forward to. An event like this makes a big impression on new employees and helps reinforce organizational culture.
    2. Embrace technology and workplace flexibility. Make sure employees feel valued by ensuring they have the tools to be successful in their jobs and offer alternative work schedules, hybrid work locations and other alternatives where appropriate for the role and the overall effectiveness of the organization. 
    3. Consider pilot programs. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Maybe your employees would like to bring their dogs to work, but that seems daunting to try. Start with a ‘bring your dog to work’ day and see how that goes. Employees will value creativity and willingness to try new things.
  2. Invest in learning and development. Offer to send employees to professional development conferences and trainings. If resources are scarce, provide opportunities for webinars, zoom classes, and online programs. Encourage every employee to attain a minimum number of training hours per year. 
  3. Offer employee programs, such as:
    1. Wellness (walking groups, special interest sporting events/pick up games such as Tuesday Tennis)
    2. Brown bag lunches on topics of interest (gardening, home improvement, travel, emergency preparedness, parenting, etc)
    3. Financial wellness (automatic enrollment into retirement savings plans, education and financial wellness tools, like counseling, planning and online learning)
    4. Book groups
    5. Employee fairs (employee safety fair and/or employee appreciation lunches)
  4. Offer extended time off. Either paid or unpaid. Sabbaticals and extended vacation time are not just good for employees to rest and recharge — they benefit the organization by stress-testing the organizational chart and providing interim roles to allow aspiring employees to take on more leadership!
  5. Conduct exit interviews. And don’t let them sit on a shelf. Set up a recurring mechanism for the executive team to review data and make it a priority to understand why people leave and then actually commit to doing something to address any identified issues.

By prioritizing employee satisfaction, professional development and work-life balance, local governments can create environments where talent is nurtured and retained. Investing in our employees emerges not only as a strategic imperative but also as a commitment to serving our communities with excellence and integrity. Through concerted efforts to retain and attract talent, local governments can continue to thrive and meet the diverse needs of their constituents, ensuring a brighter future for all.