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Learning from the Private Sector: Three Best Practices for Public Sector Agencies

Patrick Devlin

Senior Vice President, Fishtree

In my work with Cornerstone OnDemand’s public sector customers in state, local and federal government agencies, I’m regularly asked what they can learn from our private sector clients who are doing talent management "the right way". Where and how can they apply private sector best practices and utilize lessons learned in a government environment?

It is in this spirit that Patrick Mallory explored "The Private Sector's Lessons for Government" for Governing, outlining some common business practices that could encourage effectiveness and innovation in the public sector. He makes some great points about recruiting, customer service and data sharing, while noting the challenges that are unique to public sector organizations: "unlike the private sector, governments and their agencies have to approach solving problems, adapting to expectations and responding to requests from a place where policies and procedures, regulations, and bureaucratic inertia often win out over innovation."

When it comes to my area of expertise, integrated talent management, I generally refer to the three following private sector "best practices" that public sector organizations can work to incorporate into their own agencies. Even within the constraints of public sector management, these areas allow for some creativity and safely challenge conventional ways of doing the business of the government – to the benefit of government employees, their agency missions and the constituents they serve.

Know Your People

Generally, private sector organizations have a much better understanding of the skills, knowledge and abilities their employees possess. They see their employees as more than their job titles, having identified and documented the ways their skill sets can benefit the business, regardless of whether or not the challenge at hand falls outside of an employee’s team or department. Private sector organizations aren’t afraid to pull together people from different roles, teams and titles who possess very specific skills for task-and project-based teams.

Look at the Work, Not the Job

Human capital management professionals in both the private and public sectors are regularly tasked with filling jobs. However, the private sector differs in its approach, in that businesses seek to understand the actual work that is required that warrants an open head count. They are not constrained by barriers such as title, department, or functions, and can be creative in terms of exploring if the role can be redefined, titles changed, and/or responsibilities divided among the existing workforce. It’s less about filling an open headcount and more about finding the person or people with the right skills who can successfully take on the work.

Plan for What’s Next

Just as agency missions evolve over time, so do business strategies and perspectives. The private sector does a much better job of planning one step ahead of the changes, ensuing that when the business need is there, the right professionals will be there to take on the work. From succession planning to strategic planning to incorporating training programs before the skills become mission critical, businesses build the framework to make sure the right people with the right skills are ready to perform the work when needed.

I know these recommendations may seem out of reach to those in the public sector trenches, but small steps do go a long way. The reality is, each and every job opening or employee transition presents an opportunity for you to create change throughout your agency. Bottom line, the more you know and understand the work and your people, the easier it is to be flexible and agile to address employee and mission demands.

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