‘You’re always competing with something’: EY’s global lead for government on recruitment in a digital age

Ageing governments across the world are crying out for an injection of fresh talent. EY’s George Atalla tells Rebecca Hill that they have plenty to offer – but need to change their approach.

Recruitment processes in government need updating for a digital age – Photo credit: Flickr, Richard Rutter, CC BY 2.0

“It’s amazing, whether you’re in the developed or developing world, it’s pretty much the same: governments have an ageing workforce,” says George Atalla, the global sector lead for the government and public sector practice at EY.

But this ageing workforce – which Atalla puts down to a combination of redundancy programmes that have left the more senior – and older – civil servants in position and a shift in what young people are looking for in a job – is causing governments problems.

In an increasingly technology-driven world, people expect to interact with public services in the same way they do with online retailers, and governments need tech-savvy staff to help design these digital services.

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Atalla argues that governments need to change their way of thinking if they want to attract the younger generation, and adapt their recruitment practices accordingly. To him this means everything from changing the words used in adverts to reassessing what millennials actually want from a job.

For instance, he says, the idea of the civil service being a job for life is also not as appealing as it once was. In the past, the job security of government work was attractive, he says, “but a lot of millennials don’t value you this as much as the generation of 30 to 40 years ago.”

Instead, Atalla says there’s a strong emphasis on purpose, which also came out in EY’s recent report into digital recruitment practices for governments.

“Millennials want to feel they are doing something that impacts others. This is quite different from the dynamic that you have maybe 30 or 40 years ago, when working for government fairly automatically meant you had an impact on others.”

And it’s something he thinks governments are still struggling with, especially when the best digital talent might use the private sector as a baseline of what they want from a workplace.

“Millennials want to feel they are doing something that impacts others”

“Given the choice of being at Google or working for government, which would you naturally pick?” asks Atalla. “As with everything, you’re always in competition with something.”

Governments have a lot to sell, says Atalla, who describes them as “entities appointed just to look after others”, but “that proposition isn’t always well communicated”.

They also have to compete on other levels – the difficulties of even coming close to what the private sector pays are well-documented – but Atalla says “it isn’t necessarily just about the money”.

Governments can offer other things in return, such as flexible working arrangements, which are an ever-more important part of people’s lives, especially when a lot of roles are less reliant on people being in the office day-in, day-out.

“Make it clear that coming to work there doesn’t mean an 8am – 5pm job,” says Atalla. “Say, you can work from home a few times, and that’s fine. Or, if you feel like going to the gym at 11am, that’s perfectly fine as long as you get your work done.”

This sort of flexibility also benefits the government, he says, because an increase in flexible working will ease the burden – and rental costs – on the government’s estate.

Governments also need to take a different approach to recruitment – they need to think differently about how they target potential employees, for instance by working more closely with universities to sell the benefits of public service early on and making better use of data available online.

“The data is there,” says Atalla. “Very few people will send a letter with a CV. Everything is digitised: the transmission of information is digital, but more importantly a lot of applicants’ information is available online”.

And, he says, some organisations are making use of this information by designing algorithms to assess potential candidates from information on LinkedIn – although he acknowledges that not all governments will have the resources to invest in this kind of data analytics.

A simpler approach would be to tackle the biggest bottlenecks first, and design a targeted approach to go after those skills.

“If you look at government processes, these things are exceptionally slow to change.”

“Take cyber,” says Attala. “This is a very technical area that’s in very high demand. And government has a dual responsibility here that the private sector doesn’t have – it has to protect both its own networks from cyber attacks and be capable of protecting the nation.”

Although governments around the world are “attempting to rely on a lot of consultants” at the moment, they will need to recruit full-time members of staff, and this is an area that governments could pick to focus their efforts on.

“Think about what you could do to attract people, and think of it as if you were a private sector company,” he says. “You’d be offering flexible work, trying to reach out to people to build a relationship before they graduate.”

So, if the problem, as Atalla describes it, is “clear” and well understood by governments, why are so many still struggling to make the shift to effective digital recruitment?

“That’s another question,” he says. “If you look at government processes, these things are exceptionally slow to change.

“On the one hand they understand how big the problem is, but at the same time, they’re constrained by the same rules and regulations that were designed many, many years ago – and they have been very slow to change and reflect the new reality.”

Nonetheless, Atalla is positive that governments do have what it takes to stand out above the private sector in the fight for digital talent.

“We’ve seen some pockets of excellence,” he says. “[The public sector] offers plenty in return – a feeling of purpose; of contributing to a larger good. Those are areas governments can capitalise on.”


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