Transforming public sector hiring with data-enabled talent ‘win rooms’

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The need for public sector workers has steadily increased over the past several years due to expanded government mandates and funding, including the American Rescue Plan1 and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.2 These and other initiatives have resulted in a rapid rise in the number of government jobs needing to be filled. In March 2023, there were 1.05 million government job openings—compared with fewer than 700,000 at the end of 20203—accounting for more than 10 percent of open jobs in the United States.4

However, employers across sectors are struggling to balance competing hiring priorities as they contend with an uncommon combination of economic uncertainty and a persistently tight labor market.5Shorter for longer: Navigating the taut talent tightrope amid economic uncertainty,” blog entry by Bryan Hancock and Asutosh Padhi, McKinsey, January 3, 2023. In the context of these trends, the public sector can transform its traditional hiring practices and close its growing labor gap by optimizing four key hiring steps and deploying data-enabled talent ‘win rooms’ to rapidly fill in-demand positions.

A data-enabled talent win room is a central, cross-functional team that uses internal and external data to address talent attraction needs and rapidly recruit in-demand talent. A win room can be a catalyst for recruiting and hiring transformations: critically, it quickly and effectively lends focus, transparency, and structure to implement essential steps for improving recruiting and hiring. It also allows for dedicated attention across stakeholders to solve the organization’s most crucial talent attraction and hiring problems.

The challenges affecting public sector hiring

The government’s talent attraction challenges are apparent in its hiring data: the public sector has had the lowest overall hiring rate of the ten major economic sectors tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the past several years, hovering at about half the rate of the private sector.6

Because economic uncertainty and tight labor markets have historically existed in isolation, employers do not have a playbook for managing hiring amid these dueling forces. Many leaders are therefore balancing on a “talent tightrope” as they carefully and simultaneously trim budgets, retain key talent, and protect the business in the near term while also setting it up for success in the long term. Government employers have fewer options for effectively navigating these difficulties because of the rigorous hiring processes many government roles require.7Mission critical: Improving government workforce planning,” McKinsey, September 14, 2022.

The public sector’s struggle to fill its vacancies increasingly endangers the United States’ efforts to serve the public,8Transforming the US government’s approach to hiring digital talent,” McKinsey, September 9, 2020. including major initiatives to upgrade infrastructure, bolster supply chain resilience, educate children, and respond to the complex geopolitical environment.

To overcome these challenges, leading organizations are taking four crucial steps to modernize traditional hiring practices and fill critical positions quickly.

How leading organizations win the race for talent

Many leading organizations have been able to rapidly attract and hire needed talent by focusing on four critical components of the hiring process: expanding the candidate pipeline, sharpening job descriptions and employer branding, streamlining the hiring process, and enabling data-based decision making.

Each of these actions can help close talent gaps, but they are especially effective when used together.

Expanding the candidate pipeline

Creatively reassessing and changing candidate screening criteria can expand sourcing pipelines, ultimately increasing the number of qualified potential candidates who may be considered for a role. These changes could include strategically seeking out new types of candidates, such as those switching jobs midcareer or reentering the workforce after time away; candidates from different geographic locations or remote workers; candidates from diverse demographics or backgrounds; or skilled-through-alternative-routes (STAR) candidates, who are adults in the workforce over the age of 25 who have high school diplomas but do not have bachelor’s degrees.9

There are nearly 70 million STAR candidates in the United States, composing approximately 50 percent of the workforce. Despite not holding bachelor’s degrees, these individuals have developed skills through workforce training, boot camps or certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job experiences. Because a résumé screener may automatically exclude these candidates due to their lack of formal educational credentials, expanding screening criteria to include STAR candidates could vastly expand the pool of qualified job applicants. This is an especially potent way for organizations to close labor gaps for critical roles more quickly, especially during a time when many organizations are struggling with a perceived skills gap in the talent market.10Tearing the ‘paper ceiling’: McKinsey supports effort driving upward mobility for millions of workers,” September 23, 2022. In addition, the public sector is uniquely poised to provide employment opportunities to underserved groups, such as refugees and formerly incarcerated individuals, by expanding its talent pipeline to include more STAR candidates.

The impact of expanding the candidate pipeline is of heightened importance for addressing public sector talent shortages: between April 2020 and April 2022, 72 percent of public and social sector or not-for-profit workers who left did not return to the same industries or left the workforce entirely,11The Great Attrition is making hiring harder. Are you searching the right talent pools?,” McKinsey Quarterly, July 13, 2022. indicating a growing need to seek out new sources of talent. This is underscored by ongoing research by McKinsey and the National Association of State Chief Administrators (NASCA), which has demonstrated that ongoing talent challenges have resulted in critical resource shortages that have restricted various government services, particularly those related to areas with acute shortages such as healthcare and engineering.12Bridging the talent gap in state government postpandemic,” McKinsey, March 17, 2023. The benefits of expanding the candidate pipeline are therefore especially potent for public sector entities.

Sharpening job descriptions and employer branding

Highlighting favorable aspects of a role to job seekers can also greatly attract talent. This is particularly critical for government roles: in a recent McKinsey survey of 1,500 public sector employees, more than 40 percent of respondents cited meaningful work as one of the top reasons why they wanted to stay in their current position.13What workers want is changing. That could be good for government,” McKinsey, October 26, 2022. Organizations could develop and implement surveys or hold focus groups for potential job candidates as well as for current employees to understand what these groups value in their roles and employers. This information can then be used to redesign job descriptions and employer branding to crystallize and clearly communicate aspects of a role that candidates care about, thereby attracting more applicants.

Streamlining the hiring process

In recent years, the average time from a candidate applying to a public sector job to receiving a job offer was about 119 days—more than triple the private-sector average.14 To condense this lengthy process without compromising outcomes, public sector organizations can rapidly analyze their current-state hiring processes to understand the most salient pain points. These data can help inform the redesigning of hiring processes to, for example, simplify application requirements, minimize handoffs between teams, and strategically time security-screening procedures to reduce time to hire and improve the candidate experience. Organizations could also create greater transparency into the hiring process for candidates via more proactive communications or by creating a calendar of hiring milestones and expectations.

Enabling data-based decision making

Underpinning all other steps in improving hiring processes is enabling data-based decision making across recruiting and hiring activities. This can be achieved by standing up dashboards that are used to drive day-to-day operational decisions. Such dashboards provide visibility into current process bottlenecks, which allows for attention and action to be directed where it is most needed, ultimately resulting in improved talent attraction and hiring efforts for many public sector entities.

Across sectors, data transparency enables organizations to quickly progress hiring by shedding light on where efficiencies can be swiftly realized (for example, where candidates are getting stuck in existing hiring processes). Deploying dashboards that serve as a single source of truth on organizational recruiting and hiring has proven critical for companies; they are core to any effort to close talent gaps.

How data-enabled talent win rooms transform public sector hiring practices

The four steps above can significantly transform the efficacy of hiring. But implementing them—and doing so quickly and efficiently to close talent gaps—is not easy for any organization, especially for those with dispersed internal recruiting and hiring teams that do not coordinate regularly or that lack readily available hiring data. In the public sector, these challenges are particularly pronounced because the structures of many public sector organizations do not allow for the focus and cross-functional collaboration required to implement these efforts tactfully, nor do they have dedicated teams to execute these changes. As such, many organizations in both the private and public sectors have set up data-enabled talent win rooms to orchestrate and accelerate the implementation of these steps to rapidly close talent gaps.

Four steps can significantly transform the efficacy of hiring. But implementing them is not easy for any organization.

Building a data-enabled talent win room

Data-enabled talent win rooms include three fundamental characteristics.

A cross-functional team of stakeholders. The cross-functional team brings together the stakeholders needed to hire talent quickly. This core group is made up of members from human resources, such as recruiters and hiring specialists; business functions, such as hiring managers; and subject matter experts, such as personnel security and IT professionals. The dedicated talent win room team works together to help candidates progress quickly through the hiring process by minimizing handoff delays between teams and expediting alignment to hire candidates. This swift stakeholder coordination can greatly reduce the time required to complete critical hiring activities, resulting in more talent in the door when it is needed.

A central repository for accurate hiring data. A central data repository—and, ideally, a set of dashboards that uses the central data to showcase hiring goals and progress—helps aggregate information on hiring across the organization. Data shown could include actual hiring versus planned hiring, the number of candidates at each stage of the hiring pipeline, and vacancy requests filed from the business to the human-capital office. These data can be used to inform hiring planning, drive recruiting and hiring strategies, and deliver a clear picture of current hiring successes and gaps.

An iterative working model. Using an iterative working model supported by agile ways of working—including daily check-ins, weekly planning, and biweekly retrospective assessments—can ensure continuous hiring progress. By working in this manner, the talent win room can rapidly identify bottlenecks to hiring and determine the right interventions needed to accelerate solutions. The data-enabled talent win room team can then rapidly deploy these interventions and measure their impact, adjusting as data show which interventions yield the greatest impact. This approach allows for a rapid, data-informed operating model of continuous testing, learning, and adapting.

Data-enabled talent win rooms in practice

The characteristics and operating models of data-enabled talent win rooms create organizational capacity to transform hiring by bringing together the data and expertise necessary to make quick and sound hiring decisions. Their impact has been demonstrated repeatedly within organizations of different types, sizes, and locations.

For example, one large US federal agency created a fiscal-year hiring goal that was more than 50 percent higher than the total number of hires they were able to make in the previous fiscal year. To accomplish this goal, the agency set up a data-enabled talent win room to develop executive and operational dashboards that provided visibility into hiring progress and barriers. The cross-functional team could then strategically reduce bottlenecks for hiring critical roles. These efforts allowed the agency to increase its hiring rate by more than 30 percent in the first three months after establishing the data-enabled talent win room.

At a different US federal agency, candidates, hiring managers, and HR specialists reported numerous pain points throughout the hiring process, such as candidates saying the hiring process was delayed and not transparent. The agency explored solutions from a customer-centric approach and subsequently piloted changes through a data-enabled talent win room. Metrics of success, such as process timelines and candidate experience feedback, were rigorously tracked, and a cross-functional team worked together to ensure rapid progress. As a result, the time to hire decreased by nearly 80 percent, and the team within the agency that implemented the data-enabled talent win room efforts saw a more than sevenfold net gain in hiring numbers in that fiscal year.

Data-enabled talent win rooms have also been used successfully in public sector organizations outside the United States. For example, a G-20 ministry was undergoing a major transformation to digitalize its services, which required elevating organizational capabilities to attract, select, and cultivate top tech talent. However, the agency had nascent knowledge of tech talent needs and a recruiting process that took up to six months. By using a data-enabled talent win room, the agency was able to attract the talent it needed to power its transformation, reducing time to hire by 65 percent, quintupling its monthly interview capacity, and developing more than 15 recruiting partnerships with academic institutions and technology communities across the country. The data-enabled talent win room helped the department deliver results faster while retaining and growing talent. In turn, the department won a national award for client experience.

The path forward for public sector hiring

A robust, qualified, and motivated public sector workforce is critical to drive complex initiatives that affect society. Using data-enabled talent win rooms to implement the four steps described above has been shown to be key in closing labor gaps in any type of organization, but they are especially beneficial to government organizations that face steep hiring gaps and often have limited organizational capacity to close them.

The meaningful nature of public sector work is widely valued by both prospective and existing employees, offering a unique competitive advantage when recruiting and hiring. However, the sector still faces steep, persistent attraction and hiring challenges. Using data-enabled talent win rooms to combat these challenges can help quickly and effectively fill the sector’s growing number of open critical roles with qualified and motivated candidates. The accelerated hiring of candidates into these critical government roles can help speed up the many important public sector initiatives that benefit all citizens.

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