Nothing in organizations today is static—not org charts, not challenges, not employees. Many private sector companies have been experimenting with flexible workforce strategies for decades, but public sector agencies have largely stuck with traditional approaches. Even if they are no longer strictly command-and-control, most public sector org charts, hierarchies, and workforces have stayed comparatively static from year to year.
But that is beginning to change. Government agencies face constantly shifting needs from employees, citizens, and oversight bodies, along with rolling talent shortages. Many leaders are responding by driving a shift toward workforce fluidity, making flexibility the routine rather than the exception.
Increasingly, government agencies are embracing:
The result is the outline of a public sector workforce for the future; one that is mobile, flexible, skills-based, and collaborative.
Workers retiring today have held an average of a dozen jobs during their careers,2 and younger workers could look forward to even more, likely spanning a range of roles, industries, geographies, and employers. Mobility has become such a core value of the modern workplace that many public sector leaders are adopting talent models that enable workers and their skill sets to move within and even—temporarily—outside the public sector.3
This may be driven partly by challenge (the shortage of specialized skills that many agencies face) and partly by opportunity (boosting worker retention, engagement, and learning through internal mobility options). If done right, flexible talent models can be a win-win for managers and workers. Government agencies are exploring various types of arrangements, including:
In a similar vein, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is offering rotational assignments to early- and mid-career employees—a type of program familiar to many private sector employees.5 Through these temporary assignments, workers can gain experience working with different teams on different projects and broaden their skills.6
Indeed, some agencies are working to embed worker mobility into their culture. In 2021, the Australian Public Service offered rotation opportunities to university graduates, aimed at instilling a culture of mobility among young employees from the beginning. Results materialized quickly: Mobility among Australian public servants reached a 20-year high in 2021, with 5.7% of employees moving to another agency, compared to the earlier range of 1.5%–3.9%.9
The government of Singapore, facing rising attrition levels among civil service employees, is looking to shore up retention by expanding job rotations in the public sector, along with offering wellness counseling and making many pandemic-era flexible work arrangements permanent.12
“We’re never going to be able to match in the US government the kind of salaries or economic benefits that you can find in lots of parts of the tech sector as well. What we can offer, though, are fascinating problems to solve.” 13
—CIA director Bill Burns, on the agency’s Technology Fellows program
Skills are increasingly becoming the organizing language of workplaces. In the private sector, some companies are moving toward organizing talent practices around skills or problems to be solved rather than traditional jobs.14 In a recent Deloitte survey, nearly two-thirds of executives who responded said work in their organizations is currently performed in teams or projects outside of employee’s core job descriptions. And over the next three years, 85% of HR executives expect to at least consider redesigning the way work is organized so that skills can be flexibly ported across the workplace.15
Agencies are beginning to shift toward a skills-based direction, particularly in hiring. For example, the US Office of Personnel Management recently released guidance on the federal government’s adoption of skills-based hiring practices—a notable step for federal hiring, historically reliant on a candidate’s educational credentials and self-assessments to gauge ability to perform in a job.16 Agency director Kiran Ahuja notes, “By focusing on what an applicant can do—and not where they learned to do it—skills-based hiring will expand talent pools by making it easier for applicants without a bachelor’s degree to demonstrate their skills and will help remove barriers to employment for historically underrepresented groups.”17
At the state level, in 2019, the Indiana Office of Technology was the first state agency to implement skills-based hiring with a connected apprenticeship program;19 Indiana has since become a leader in employing a skills-first approach for technical roles.20 Maryland has followed suit, dropping a four-year college degree as a prerequisite for thousands of state jobs and aiming to ensure that “qualified, nondegree candidates are regularly being considered for these career-changing opportunities.”21
Organizing talent by skill set can also make workers with specific skill sets more discoverable, creating more opportunities for candidates. Agencies such as the US Department of Defense (DoD) are increasingly realizing that their current job classification may not reflect a worker’s true skill set—and that they may have overlooked available pools of in-demand skills. Through the Defense Innovation Unit’s AI-enabled GigEagle platform, the DoD aims to match skills needed for short-term projects with the skill sets and experience of interested DoD reservists and National Guard members.22
Greater visibility into employees’ skills, combined with offering them the opportunity to augment their skills through training and education, can give agencies strength and flexibility when shifting focus or launching new initiatives. For example, as governments look to aid broad decarbonization efforts, Deloitte Economics Institute’s mapping of existing workforce skills shows that 80% of the skills necessary in the short-to-medium term to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 already exist.23
Without the right kinds of support, promising workforce flexibility models can fall flat; in any organization, walls and silos that have come down can quickly rise again if enough challenges arise or benefits can’t be sustained. Agencies looking to bolster the skills-based shift and lock in greater workforce mobility and flexibility are taking steps to revamp their talent management systems.
To make skills more interoperable, visible, and transferable, the US Navy recently launched a platform called MilGears. It enables service members and veterans to put in one place all the skills acquired through training, education, and on-the-job experience over their entire military career. Records are connected to the federal O*NET platform, which links to jobs across the US economy; service members can see how their skills might apply to civilian or nonmilitary occupations, and can identify skill gaps that further experience can fill.24
Performance evaluation should also consider how individuals build skills and apply them to create value. Again, the private sector offers potential models: Google’s performance management process aims to balance skills and outcomes, encouraging employees to work with their managers to determine and document their “priorities” for their own development and identify specific learning opportunities based on these priorities to act on over future quarters.28
The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency developed an interactive tool aimed at helping employees explore work roles, illustrating 52 work roles and five distinct skill communities. By reviewing roles’ common and distinct aspects, users can quickly identify which knowledge, skills, and abilities they would need to acquire to qualify—and they can get a clear sense of how positions interact, and how to move between them.29
The Government Lab of Argentina’s Design Academy is likewise focused on directly connecting skills development and career progression. Looking to develop a flexible, data-fluent public sector, the agency educated more than 15,000 public servants in its first three years. Employees are given the opportunity to attend classes, events, or lectures and study subjects from prototyping to agile methods to data visualization,30 with an economy of credits incentivizing participation. Each worker earns anywhere from two points for attending a lecture to 100 for an in-depth class—and must earn 60 points annually to qualify for promotion.31 By offering and tracking education in soft and hard skills, Argentina’s program is designed as a skills-based approach that can adapt to challenges.
Government is increasingly faced with the task of addressing cross-sector challenges such as climate change, public health, cybersecurity, and homelessness. Collaborating and coordinating efforts across and beyond government can be a critical part of this.
Government workforces should be adept at building cross-sector collaborations, making connections with different levels of government, and increasing public value by catalyzing action across organizations. To develop this competency in their workforce, governments are focusing on skills development, creating incentives to collaborate, and building structures, platforms, and systems for formal and informal collaboration.
Organizations and the environments they operate in are constantly changing. Government agencies should continue their ongoing shift toward fluidity, working to tap employee capabilities through skills-based workforce structures. As more agencies move in this direction, agency HR leaders should consider the following actions:
Go deeper with your skills-based approach to talent. While skills-based hiring is a good start, agencies can benefit from embedding the skills focus in other areas, such as:
Create specialized roles and tracks in government around collaboration. Incentives such as funding, data, and recognition can help drive collaboration, but agencies should also make it a part of career-growth discussions. Building specialized roles that focus on collaboration or making collaboration skills a core element of the professional development of public sector workers can be a powerful tool for affecting mindset change.
Embed diversity, equity, and inclusion into all talent processes. Whether it’s a hybrid-work policy or changes to a performance management process, make sure that the change supports—rather than inadvertently impedes—greater workforce diversity and inclusion. For example, skills-based hiring and the use of apprenticeships can help attract more diverse candidates to occupations: More than one-fifth of the 420 firefighters that the US Forest Service recruited through its apprenticeship program were women, while underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprised nearly half.37 Another data set to consider is measures of a worker’s potential, e.g., factors like drive, empathy, and conceptual thinking. These pieces of data, alongside skills, can help organizations identify talent with high potential, offsetting the risk that a focus on skills systemically disadvantages those that have had less access to education.
The Deloitte Center for Government Insights shares inspiring stories of government innovation, looking at what’s behind the adoption of new technologies and management practices. We produce cutting-edge research that guides public officials without burying them in jargon and minutiae, crystalizing essential insights in an easy-to-absorb format. Through research, forums, and immersive workshops, our goal is to provide public officials, policy professionals, and members of the media with fresh insights that advance an understanding of what is possible in government transformation.Learn More