So You've Hired Digital Talent in Government. How do You Keep Them?
As anyone working in government knows, recruiting digital talent is a major challenge. So once you’ve got them in the door, how do you retain them?
The tech sector has the highest turnover rate of all business sectors, with large tech companies boasting a median tenure of just one year. And that’s the private sector, where talent can expect attractive equity packages, competitive salaries and a long list of perks.
So how can the public sector not only compete, but convince digital professionals to stay?
In our last blog post, we broke down how the Code for Canada Fellowship program managed to recruit top digital talent to work on government projects. But we weren’t just able to attract them — more than 75% of our fellows stayed on in government once their contract was complete.
Here’s what our fellows told us about what caused them to consider leaving government, and what could be done to keep them.
In our conversations with former fellows, they mentioned some key retainment issues:
Culture shock: Often fellows were entering the public service for the first time and, even with dedicated onboarding sessions designed to introduce them to public sector ways of working, a number reported feeling unprepared for many of the skills needed to be effective in government.
Limited digital tools: Fellows coming from the private sector were used to accessing industry-standard SaaS products and software. Many were confused by what they described as “the many regulations in place around what tools can and can’t be used in government.” It created a disconnect between the expectation to produce best-in-class outcomes, without the necessary tools.
Inaccurate job titles: Across all levels of the public service, inaccurate job titles and requirements limited fellows’ ability and willingness to stay. Often fellows worked years to have their title reflect their specialty and expertise, only to be asked to accept a generic designation like ‘Analyst,’ which could limit their future career perspectives and recognition from their peers.
Educational requirements: Government job classifications often have strict education requirements that may not reflect applicants’ abilities. In the tech sector, it’s common for skilled and senior contributors to have a limited traditional post-secondary education, having proved themselves through the quality of their work.
Lack of trust of in-house staff: Fellows who continued in the public service after their contract found they were treated differently as staff. As fellows, they were often given more freedom to question methods and take larger risks. That changed after they became full-time — contractors and outside talent were trusted more than employees.
Despite these challenges, some chose to pursue a career in public service for the same reason that drove them to apply for the Fellowship in the first place — the ability to work on impactful projects that would improve people’s lives at scale.
We spoke with them about how governments could retain digital talent. Here’s what they shared.
Update job requirements and credentials
Following their contracts, many fellows were given titles and job descriptions that failed to reflect their role. Title concerns go beyond vanity — traditional classifications in the public sector can stop candidates from doing the work they are qualified for.
Many qualified developer fellows didn’t have a traditional computer science university degree, but were self-taught and informed by many years of industry experience. Despite their proven abilities, they failed to qualify for a Computer Systems (CS) classification, keeping them from federal employment.
Hiring managers must revise titles and educational requirements to ensure they can hire based on experience and proven ability.
Create communities of practice
Across the public sector, talented digital professionals are doing similar work and facing similar challenges.
Communities of practice can provide a space for those with similar roles and mandates to discuss common issues, share learnings, and co-create resources.
One fellow shared that being able to connect “peer to peer, across projects [and] being able to see what [others are] doing and how did [they] approached a problem or challenge,” enabled them to do better work.
Create a public sector guide for digital talent
The style, pace and culture of the public sector is significantly different from what most digital professionals are used to in the private sector. But while the public craves the quality and seamlessness they’ve come to expect from consumer products and services, there are often good reasons why the government development process is more regulated and constrained.
A government-created guide to navigating the public service could prepare incoming digital professionals with the tools and knowledge they need to overcome barriers and do great digital work in a public sector environment.
How can digital professionals succeed in the public sector?
Once you’ve attracted and retained digital talent, how can you set them up for long-term success? In the final blog in our series, we’ll be breaking down just that. Want to read it first? Sign up to get it straight in your inbox.
This blog post series is based on findings published in Building Digital Government Talent Pipelines: Recruitment and Retention for Digital Era Government, as part of the Code For Canada, Institute for Public Administration, and Policy Ready digital government case study series study. To get a more in-depth review of our findings, please read the full case study.