How can the public sector hiring experience be improved?
Updated: Mar 8
Public sector employers today are struggling to attract and retain talent, especially in the context of the continuing tight labor market. They face a double problem. Not only are they typically unable to compete with the private sector on salary, they are also notorious for subpar recruitment and hiring experiences.
While some of the additional hurdles involved in public sector hiring may be necessary, most public sector employers we have spoken to agree it could be improved. With that in mind, CivicPulse and Qualtrics conducted a national survey of public sector staff—including both those involved in hiring and those who were recently hired—at all three levels of government.
Our goal was to establish a quantitative baseline: what aspects of the hiring process are the most problematic?
Identifying Opportunities for Improvement
Among those recently hired, the survey asked respondents to rate how satisfied they were with four distinct stages of the hiring process: the application, the assessment, the interview, and the offer. Looking at hiring satisfaction by stage reveals important variation. Recent hires were the most satisfied with the interview (82%) and application (77%), and least satisfied with the assessment (68%) and offer (66%). Remarkably, these two components of the hiring process were consistently rated the lowest at each level of government.
We also asked respondents to rate how satisfied they were with the overall timeliness of the hiring process. We found recent hires in the federal government were the least satisfied with the hiring timeline. However, hiring managers and recent hires at all levels of government mentioned lengthy hiring timelines in the open-ended comments as a point of frustration. These findings align with a study done by NeoGov, which has shown that hiring timelines for public sector agencies are three times that of the private sector.
A lack of communication during these extensive processes can exacerbate this issue for potential candidates. Given that public sector hiring timelines can sometimes be very drawn out and include many levels of approval and vetting, sometimes candidates may feel forgotten or even wonder if they have been eliminated from consideration.
“It's a long process and there is not a lot of communication between application, interview and offers and these steps can be months apart. You have to be very patient and really want this job. If I were applying for a number of different positions outside of the county, I would have likely accepted another offer ahead of this, but I wanted to work for the county.” – Recent hire in county government
What Can Be Done?
While every department will have to consider their own unique situation, the patterns in the data do point to some common themes. Improving the assessment and offer stages, in particular, as well as the overall slow timeline, in general, could pay dividends in successful public sector recruitment. Most of all, if hiring managers are able to revise their processes, they should make sure to put the candidate experience front and center as they do a careful review.
Regarding the assessment, public sector employers should carefully consider the value of conducting an assessment for each open position. One the one hand, assessments can be a valuable way to gauge a candidates skill level, organizational fit, and help hiring managers feel confident in their final hiring decision. On the other hand, if not designed carefully, assessments can perpetuate organizational blinds spots, create unnecessary hassle for applicants, and even open employers’ up to legal risks. Moreover, conducting and scoring assessments can add significant time to an already lengthy process.
“With applications that have additional assessments, the goal of these assessments is unknown to the applicant - they feel like hoop jumping for the sake of hoop jumping.” – Employee in the federal government
Regarding the offer stage, managing salary expectations is crucial. Candidates are sometimes frustrated not only by the lower relative wages available in the public sector, but also the feeling that negotiation is futile. For example, public sector employers often have wage bands set on union negotiations that consider years of experience, seniority level, and education level. But within the relevant salary band, negotiation is still often possible. Outlining at the beginning of the process how pay is determined and then re-iterating it based on the hiring managers assessment of the candidates’ experience level can help candidates feel empowered to negotiate after they receive their initial offer.
Regarding the overall timeline, each public sector employer must do their own review of where days could be cut off the process. But again, the candidate-centered experience is crucial here: the waiting game may be more frustrating depending on where you are in the process. So, moving a few days faster in one stage of the process could make a huge difference from the experience of the candidate, while speeding things up in a different part of the process may not be noticed as much.
And regardless of whether the process can be sped up, candidate experience can also be improved by setting clear expectations at the outset. Furthermore, employers might consider reciprocating the patience that is necessary on the part of candidates in waiting for a potential offer by offering more time when it comes to responding to the offer. It can be particularly jarring to have a long period of waiting be succeeded with a fire drill decision.
Closing the Gap
In a competitive hiring environment, closing the hiring experience gap between the public and private sectors is essential if public sector employers hope to attract talent. But improving how the public sector attracts and retains talent goes beyond filling vacancies. Without talented and passionate workers delivering high quality services to their communities, residents may question the value they receive for their tax dollars. Agencies that are proactive about improving their hiring processes will stand a greater chance of being able to effectively serve their localities, states, and the nation and improve trust in our public institutions.
The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national survey of federal, state and local government employees. Responses were collected between August 9 and October 24, 2022. The survey was developed in collaboration with the Qualtrics government team.
Below are the key survey items used to generate the results: How many years have you worked in your current position?
Less than one year
More than 10 years
If you were to guess, what factor(s) are most likely to deter candidates from considering or accepting a position in your department or agency? (Feel free to answer with a few short bullet points or sentences.)
Overall, how satisfied or unsatisfied were you with your hiring experience?
How satisfied or unsatisfied were you with each of the following parts of your hiring experience?
Was the hiring process for your current job longer, shorter, or about what you expected it to be?
Longer than what I expected it to be
About what I expected
Shorter than what I expected to be
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse