Leading a more productive public sector workforce – increasing your organisation’s workforce agility

“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy” Unknown (but plausibly attributed to Oscar Wilde)

Governments across the world are living with a new reality –next year’s budget cannot be counted on to fund future staff increases, and recruiting contractors who were only made redundant six months before is a wasteful and ineffective workforce strategy. This short brief is focused on how public sector organisations can utilise workforce agility to improve their agency productivity, without resorting to headline grabbing knee jerk actions.

Firstly, what do we mean by ‘Workforce Agility’.  Here’s a working definition:

‘Workforce agility is the capacity of an organisation to keep its human resources aligned on an ongoing basis by constantly transitioning from one HR configuration to another, endlessly, on a timely basis and in a seemly way’.[1]

How is the private sector applying agile concepts?

Companies thriving at the end of the 20th century were often organisations that were quickly reconfiguring their products to meet changing customer demand, developing flexibility in organisational form, and creating long-term strategies that could prepare them for future changes.  In the 1990s, this was Toyota (lean manufacturing), GE (the industrial conglomerate), then on to  firms like Apple (design), Microsoft (operating systems) in the early 2000s, and now firms that provide platforms and marketplaces, but little else in the way of what we would normally think about as a ‘enterprise’ (such as Airbnb, Freelancer (Aust.) or Uber).

Today, in the face of constant, volatile and disruptive change, leading enterprises are increasingly turning to workforce agility to increase their performance.  The basis for their competitive advantages hinges on their ability to generate a steady stream of both large and small innovations in products, services, solutions, business models, and even internal processes that enable them to leapfrog and out manoeuvre current and potential future competitors.  These moves may generate a series of temporary competitive advantages that might, with luck, add up to sustained success over time.  As described by Andrea Ovans in ‘What is Strategy, Again, this process can be summed up as doing something new, on a continual basis, a little cheaper than your competitors:

As consumers become accustomed to this ongoing, often invisible adjustment to their needs, so too do they expect the same thing from their institutions, service providers and governments.[2]  Faced with these competing demands (continual innovation, falling revenue, 24/7 service delivery), public sector organisations will need to use every position they have more flexibility, more holistically, more pragmatically.  To be successful, organisations are dependent on their workforce becoming more agile, with characteristics such as: adaptation, flexibility, collaboration, responsiveness and continuous innovation.  To be an agile organisation it follows that an organisation needs an agile workforce, empowered by ‘agile’ processes that can respond to a rapidly changing world. 

Workforce agility in an age of government fiscal constraint

Governments across the world are adopting agility to better anticipate looming challenges and respond appropriately.  Like the private sector, the nature of the conversation between government and citizens no longer occurs solely at election time, with a policy voted equaling a policy implemented.  Increasingly, the conversation is continuous, resulting in a continuous cycle of reform.   Much like software companies, products and services ‘can’ be deployed, observed, measured, validated and optimised in days and weeks, not months. Decisions are made quickly. Directions shift overnight.

In the public sector, where can that flexibility come from?  Ironically, from allowing less differentiation between positions, standardising competency requirements, more customisation on the job, introducing objective measures into the talent selection process, accepting that change should be accepted within the role, rather than fixed during the hiring phase.

Through its extensive research with countries to analyse and improve public governance systems, the OECD has been exploring the concept of ‘strategic agility’.  The OECD defines it across three components: strategic sensitivity, leadership unity and resource fluidity.  For governments, this means anticipating and planning future needs, aligning policies across public administration to shared strategic objectives and the public good, and finally fast redeployment of resources as needs change. [3]  Improving resource fluidity, namely that the right human resources can be acquired, developed, and deployed in line with shifting priorities, should be the goal for public sector organisations.

What could your organisation do to increase the flexibility of your public sector workforce?

  • Increasing workforce mobility, either within Department or across the sector (Ireland Public Sector, The Australian Public Sector), by efficient recruitment processes, common performance frameworks and encouragement to purse diverse work opportunities
    • Countries such as Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal and Slovenia are all working to increase intra-government mobility
  • Explicitly linking strategic workforce planning (the organisational capability to determine the required future workforce) to budget planning in order to determine the required resource requirement across numbers, skills, competencies and allocation
  • Pay attention to capability frameworks – defining abilities and behaviours people need to do their jobs well, and selecting that talent objectively
  • Increase establishment of pools of available staff, notably by Austria, France, Hungary, Netherlands, Russian Federation and Portugal.
  • Radically change how government work is managed by using resource management systems so that an organisation’s entire workforce is visible, networked and accountable.  Examples can be found within services businesses such as utilities, consulting, technology and health.
  • Incentivising agility through linking to government and organisational objectives, as well as to individual’s performance arrangements.
  • Reduce differentiation between roles: customise 20% of the role rather than 60% to improve ease of movement

These are just a few ideas for improving the flexibility of the public sector workforce, a field that Workforce Insight is committed to exploring and adding value to. After all it’s in everyone’s best interests to have a committed, engaged and innovative government.


[1] Dyer, L., & Ericksen, J. (2006). Dynamic organizations: Achieving marketplace agility through workforce scalability (CAHRS Working Paper #06-12). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies

[2] https://hbr.org/2014/11/bring-agile-to-the-whole-organization

[3] http://www.oecd.org/publications/achieving-public-sector-agility-at-times-of-fiscal-consolidation-9789264206267-en.htm