What's the best way to attract and retain public sector talent?

Leadership gaps could pose significant challenges in the public sector.

As Australia’s state and federal public sector continues to grapple with some of the biggest cultural and structural changes in its history, growing leadership gaps could pose a significant challenge to performance.

By Scott Hartley


As Australia’s state and federal public sector continues to grapple with some of the biggest cultural and structural changes in its history, growing leadership gaps could pose a significant challenge to performance.

As a generation of accrued knowledge leaves the public sector, managers will need to urgently consider leadership and workforce strategies crucial to success in a competitive landscape.

It may seem counterintuitive to be talking about managing talent when public sector organisations are downsizing. But at times like this, it’s crucial to focus on the fundamentals of attracting, retaining and engaging high-calibre people.

Restructuring efforts in the public sector have so far been largely tactical, focused on headcount savings rather than hard-edge reforms. And that’s to be expected so early in the piece.

But if the public sector is to embrace a more agile, committed and sustainable workforce, the conversation will soon need to switch from short-term savings to the long-term need to attract and retain highly-skilled professionals.

The issue was discussed in some depth at a recent CPA Australia Public Sector Roundtable the conclusion was clear-cut: the public sector must rethink what it does and how it does it is in the knowledge economy of the future.

Customer demand and industry dynamics are already reshaping roles within the public sector, transforming it from being a deliverer of services to a manager of services.

This requires not only greater collaboration within organisations and across government, but also more effective partnerships and alliances with the private and not-for-profit sectors.

A dynamic and responsive public sector needs to attract those with a different outlook or stronger commercial skills.

The devolution of government services over the next five years will potentially be the biggest driver of change within the public sector, demanding a new set of commercial skills crucial to judging priorities, managing transitions, commissioning and assessing value for money.

The focus on skills will become even more critical as public sector services are benchmarked against other providers to improve productivity and service delivery.

From our experience at Grant Thornton, the public sector understands it needs new types of leadership to meet these challenges. But a shift in thinking is often easier to define than to implement.

But if we can learn anything from the private sector, it’s that the journey to future-proofing business activities starts by assessing current performance, strengths and weaknesses, and setting a baseline for future improvement.

A culture that values its best and brightest must continue to invest in training, succession planning, leadership development and talent management with the help of external specialists. These efforts should include: 

  • Performance management: Stronger competency frameworks and mentoring programs can help identify and manage star performers, as well as under-performers.
  • Mobility and flexibility: Identifying opportunities for employees to move between positions and locations can broaden the skills base and strengthen the talent pipeline.
  • Incentives: In the war for talent, a compelling and meaningful Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is critical to attracting and retaining the best performers.
  • Succession planning: Specific talent strategies can help address leadership gaps during a restructure and help an organisation achieve its goals.

The cornerstone of this approach should be to establish a culture that nurtures talent from within and promotes high-performing employees on the basis of merit.

That’s important because the public sector is characterised by many middle leaders with a strong sense of responsibility and moral purpose about service delivery.

A dynamic and responsive public sector also needs to attract those with a different outlook or stronger commercial acumen and collaborative skills, from academia as well as the private sector.

These specialist skills are vital to ensure, among other things, that there is confidence in regulatory standards; to minimise reputational risk; and to underpin innovation and organisational development.

That’s where a distinctive EVP can prove the difference. It should incentivise existing and potential employees with a balance of reward.

At its simplest level, an effective EVP should be employee-centred and clearly emphasise the unique mix of environment, policies, programs and processes on offer in the public sector. That includes articulating the more generous employer superannuation contributions, leave benefits, development opportunities and career progression pathways.

Although it is inherently more difficult to attract and retain top talent when competing with the deep pockets of the private sector, a clear EVP really can improve the quality of hires and strengthen the public sector’s reputation as an ”employer of choice”.

With these issues in mind, it is clear that restructuring programs should not just focus on dollar savings or reduced headcounts. They should be an opportunity to respond more effectively to current and future challenges facing public sector organisations and the communities they serve.

Only with the right mix of leadership and skills, and a concerted effort to attract and retain the best and brightest, will the public sector emerge in better shape to tackle new challenges.

Scott Hartley is Grant Thornton’s National Head of Public Sector