Strategies to overcoming recruitment challenges in the public sector 

Strategies to overcoming recruitment challenges in the public sector 
By Erik Smallwood and Marlene Mouanga Guerra
Dec 18, 2023

Recruitment and retention in the public sector can be tough due to a competitive candidate market and continuously evolving skill requirements. Here’s how HR and hiring managers can join forces to overcome these challenges.

The U.S. federal government continues to struggle with the persistent problem of attracting and hiring top talent for mission critical roles. In a continually changing landscape of high retirement eligibilities, and high turnover rates coupled with competition from other sectors, the need to hire efficiently and effectively is not just a priority; it’s a necessity.

Despite efforts to reduce time-to-hire averages, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has reported the average time-to-hire in 2022 to be approximately 100 days. Hiring becomes even more challenging for highly specialized roles in the federal public health space where vacancies often remain unfilled for extended periods and understaffed departments are left grappling with excessive workloads.

Across a number of projects supporting the federal government to strengthen their recruitment and hiring processes, we discovered one critical element missing from the equation for success: the strategic partnership between hiring managers and the human resources (HR) department. This alliance is not just an administrative formality, but a critical piece of the talent acquisition puzzle and often what holds the recruitment process together.

Top 3 benefits of a HR-hiring manager partnership

When everyone involved in hiring works together, they can combine their knowledge and expertise to make better decisions about how to attract and hire the right people for the right jobs. A strong partnership between HR and hiring managers can yield three important benefits.

1. A unified recruitment strategy and approach—Recruitment and hiring should begin with a clearly defined strategy that outlines how an agency will attract and hire its talent. When working together, hiring managers and HR can define hiring needs from the start and ensure their alignment with the agency’s short- and long-term priorities. A well-defined recruitment strategy, which includes input from both HR and hiring managers, will also reinforce the agency’s employee value proposition (EVP) and lay the foundation for a process that ensures an equitable experience for candidates.

2. An efficient and optimized recruitment process—When HR and hiring managers work in tandem, they can articulate and design a streamlined recruitment process that reduces the administrative burden for both groups and reduces turnaround times for key actions like position description development, resume reviews, and interview scheduling, leading to shorter time-to-hire.

3. Improved quality of candidates—Collaboration between HR and hiring managers ensures a better understanding of the skills and qualifications needed for vacancies. This, in turn, leads to better communication about what is needed in job descriptions and specialized experience statements as well as better resume reviews and interviews, and, ultimately, improvement in the overall quality of potential new hires.

4 strategies to bridge the gap between hiring managers and HR

The benefits of a strategic partnership between the recruitment function and the hiring manager may seem obvious. What may not be as obvious, however, are the deliberate strategies that can be put in place to help bridge the gap where those partnerships may not exist. 

In recent human capital and workforce transformation engagements within government organizations, we used the following strategies to strengthen recruitment and hiring processes and create a successful partnership.

1. Collaborate on defining candidate profiles and position descriptions—With the ever-changing need for new skills in the workforce, it is important for hiring managers and recruitment/hiring support staff to communicate on current and future talent needs. Both groups should work together to ensure those needs are well defined and translated into strong job descriptions that attract the right talent.

Result: To support the establishment of a new office focused on data science and advanced analytics, ICF partnered with the chief data officer, classification, and HR liaison to identify the new skills needed for the office’s workforce and incorporate them into new position descriptions for a computer science jobs series. Through structured facilitations, we supported HR liaisons to work with the two other groups to collect their input on the needs of the roles. This resulted in better job descriptions and specialized experience statements that more accurately reflected the nature of the roles and attracted higher-quality applicants.

2. Establish regular communication—As with any relationship, the HR-hiring manager partnership starts with open and transparent communication. This may involve holding recruitment planning meetings or regular check-in meetings to discuss progress.

Result: For a recent engagement with a public health agency, ICF facilitated a partnership between staff responsible for initiating hiring actions and a volunteer group within the department focused on increasing diversity through outreach. The two groups developed an ongoing meeting structure discussing talent needs and upcoming job announcements to inform the outreach and talent pipeline develop efforts of the diversity council.

This partnership led to strategic participation in recruiting events where efforts were focused on specific skill areas and career level needs of the office. One event resulted in more than 300 possible candidates spanning various areas, developing a candidate pool that could be leveraged for multiple future job announcements.

Establishing regular communications may also involve simple adjustments. ICF partnered with the same agency to implement the use of Microsoft Lists to coordinate all hiring-related correspondence and document storage. This helped create transparency in the process, allowing all involved parties to access key actions, contribute asynchronously, and monitor progress.

3. Create opportunities for cross-training and learning—Creating opportunities for cross-training and education for both recruitment/hiring support staff and hiring managers helps increase awareness and understanding about the hiring process and each other’s roles and responsibilities. This in turn can help foster empathy and mutual respect.

Result: In our work with a national public health agency, ICF partnered with one of its offices focused on infectious diseases to assess and optimize their end-to-end hiring process. During our assessment, the need for educational programs and increased awareness of recruitment and hiring processes was identified. ICF worked with the client to develop a hiring officials education campaign that included topics such as best recruitment practices and the various roles involved in the hiring process.

4. Drive continuous evaluation and improvement—While it can be daunting to regularly review and revise processes, ICF urges HR and hiring managers to iteratively review process steps and elements (i.e., paperwork requirements, approvals). This not only leads towards improved outcomes of the process (i.e., reducing reviews) but it has potential to create habits for building efficiency while leveraging previous successes. A similar iterative approach can be applied to workforce planning, another strategic and collaborative venture between HR and hiring leaders that involves an analysis of staffing gaps, planning workforce demands, and determining key talent interventions to ensure an agency’s workforce is supporting its mission and goals.

Result: For a national public health agency, ICF assisted an office by reviewing workforce data and recognizing a large contingent of retirement eligible staff with a deficit in capacity to cover the possible losses, as well as talent to fill vacancies caused by succession processes. ICF developed recommendations for workforce and recruiting action plans to aid hiring support staff in the development of talent pipelines throughout the various levels within the office.

The impact of a strong HR-hiring manager partnership is undeniable

In our work supporting federal agencies on their quest to improve recruitment operations, the HR-hiring manager partnership often surfaces as the missing link between inefficient and optimized hiring processes. By collaborating early and often, hiring managers and HR can save time, energy, and reduce the time to hire.

With a more collaborative approach–rather than the traditional, top-down approach that results in siloed workflows–federal agencies can better address recruitment challenges and help them achieve success to better support the communities they serve.

Meet the authors
  1. Erik Smallwood, Human Capital Manager

    Mr. Smallwood is an industrial/organizational psychologist with over 14 years of experience spanning the flooring, transportation, food/beverage, and human capital consulting arenas. He has spent many years in the private sector as an internal consultant in organizational development, employee engagement, and training; and as a human capital consultant in the public sector to achieve optimization of structures, processes, and resources.

  2. Marlene Mouanga Guerra, Senior Organizational Effectiveness Consultant

    Marlene Mouanga Guerra is a Senior Organizational Effectiveness Consultant with ICF who leverages 17+ years of experience in talent acquisition and a deep understanding of workforce dynamics to support public sector clients with customized solutions for their evolving workforce needs.

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