How cities can take on the mounting talent crisis December 6, 2023

How cities can take on the mounting talent crisis

December 6, 2023

The numbers speak for themselves: In New York City, municipal job vacancies skyrocketed to four times the rate they were before COVID. In Philadelphia, city officials reported that 4,000 unfilled jobs were “leading to chronic problems” in service delivery. And in Dallas, where the vacancy rate has reached 20 percent, Human Resources Director Nina Arias said, “The long-term impact of the current vacancy rate is unclear. However, it is clear [cities like] Dallas need to find creative ways to attract and retain qualified workers.”  

It was with that primary aim—to identify and uplift strategies that transform recruitment and retention practices in city halls—that 58 leaders from 15 global cities came together last month in Cambridge, Mass. The program, which drew on research and expertise from The People Lab and the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, both located at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University, zeroed in on four talent-focused approaches local leaders everywhere can consider as they look to build, strengthen, and support their teams.  

Make talent management a citywide strategic function.

While talent is, without question, at the core of cities’ abilities to execute both basic tasks and bold initiatives, it’s too often considered a function entirely separate from service delivery and policy change. That shouldn’t be the case, explains Jorrit de Jong, the director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities and an Emma Bloomberg senior lecturer in public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School. “If you’re taking on these really big issues, you have to think carefully about who you need to do the job—in the frontline roles as well as in management,” he says.  

For many cities, this might call for a shift in thinking about talent management’s role—from a compliance function, focused on making sure paperwork is submitted and paychecks are sent, to a strategic approach that guides employees’ work journeys. What this means in practice is creating a more unified HR structure that integrates employees’ entire workcycles, rather than compartmentalizing personnel processes. 

This work also includes recognizing, and then planning for, the many ways strategic recruitment can contribute to cities’ big-picture goals. That’s what’s happening in Washington, D.C., where Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has long made equity a priority of her administration, recently launched an apprenticeship program—with support from the city’s Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded innovation team (i-team)—aimed at enticing graduating seniors from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to work in local government. 

“We know that people, including many of our university students, come to D.C. and stay in D.C. because they want to change the world,” Bowser said. “We want people to know that they can change the world, one person, one program, and one community at a time, in D.C. government.”  

Use data to power personnel change.

Just as data drives cities’ most promising and impactful policy innovations, it’s a key building block for workforce and personnel innovation. But a vision with a clear end-game comes first. 

Once cities have a goal—like greater diversity—in mind, they likely already have reams of data on hand to guide them toward it. Elizabeth Linos, an Emma Bloomberg associate professor for public policy and management and faculty director at The People Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, says there are some basic ways to dig into the numbers, with equity likely being one of the chief aims. For example, she says, “You can look at things like: What's the gap in retention between Black and white employees at year one?” 

It’s equally important to look at data on who, broken down by demographic group, is applying for promotions and who is receiving them. “Sometimes, that data is provided to leadership, but it’s not yet being used often enough in [talent management] decision-making,” Linos adds.

Data can also help fuel innovations to bolster workforce growth. In Chattanooga, Tenn., a member of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative, data was central to an effort to diversify the police force. After testing the effectiveness of several recruitment mailers—including one that emphasized community and another that proposed building a career—the data showed the “career benefits” appeal was more effective among target audiences.

Engage employees to identify problems and create solutions.

Cities already rely on resident engagement to tackle many of their biggest challenges, and the same tactic can be used with their own personnel. Identifying holes in talent management—and then designing effective fixes—can include engagement with both employees and applicants. Doing so benefits from creating space for people to share problems and then collaborate on possible solutions.  

That’s what researchers from The People Lab at Harvard Kennedy School found when they explored burnout among staff at the Denver Sheriff’s Department. Survey data showed that 90 percent of employees reported burnout, with more than half of those employees describing their burnout as high or severe. But the numbers also showed that employees who felt they had a fellow deputy they could talk to—or that they were understood by their supervisor—had lower burnout. 

As a result of these findings, the department rolled out a peer-support group that allowed staff to share their experiences anonymously and read about those of others. “The program really worked—it was laser-focused on a challenge that employees themselves identified and led to improvements not only on employee job satisfaction but even on how employees viewed the jail residents,” Linos says. 

Diagnose resistance to innovation and build levers for change.

Overhauling how a city attracts and retains talent is a huge undertaking and, as such, it requires buy-in from city leadership. Just as data once siloed in IT departments is now integral to how all forward-leaning city departments work, workforce strategy benefits from being mainstreamed throughout city hall.  

“Getting there requires a set of deep strategic thinking and alliance building that is often considered at the level of the mayor, but doesn't usually trickle down to how we think about all sorts of other change management leaders within the organization,” Linos says. 

Inevitably, even with an abundance of data in hand and the best of intentions, shaking up how a workplace operates can cause friction. For instance, a city might be fearful about revamping its system for promotions given the potential to alienate long-established employees and thus lose talent. 

But the solution is not to avoid change. Instead, it’s incumbent on city leaders “to create conditions under which people who are being affected by the change are encouraged to articulate their concerns,” according to de Jong. That way, cities can bring veterans along while embracing a new, larger talent management strategy—aimed at producing better results for residents.

“Millions of people working in cities do their best every day,” says de Jong. “So we have great assets, but these assets need to be protected and developed and cared for and invested in.”