How One State Tech Company Strives to Appeal to and Retain Nice Employees

SEATTLE — Recruiting and retaining talented employees can be a struggle for state technology agencies, especially because they often don’t have the budgets to be able to compete with the salaries that tech companies can offer.

“If you are an IT professional working for government, the state of the workforce is bleak and the projections are declining all time,” Steve Pier, chief of staff for the Texas Department of Information Resources, quipped during a conference the National Association of State Chief Information Officers held here last week.

So, with the difficulties around finding and keeping great workers well known, and most state legislatures unlikely to sign off on Google-sized salary packages for information technology staff, the question becomes: What can state agencies do to maintain strong workforces and ensure employees feel like they can thrive on the job?

Pier explained that a main tenet of Texas DIR’s recruitment and retention efforts is promoting a “culture of public service.”

“There’s no way that we’re going to compete with the private sector on salaries. Simply not going to happen. And that’s ok,” he said. “We are going to be able to compete on culture and we’re going to be able to compete on quality of life.”

“Those are aspects that we have to highlight,” he added.

Amanda Crawford, Texas’ chief information officer and the Department of Information Resources’ executive director, said a key thing to think about is what attracts people to state government.

“I think that really ties into culture and to mission and being able to communicate that, being able to translate it down into your entire organization,” she said. “We can automate processes, but you can’t automate culture. It takes time and it takes work.”

Crawford ran through some of the ways her agency tries to strengthen workplace engagement. One is employee-led lunch-and-learn sessions, with some sessions highlighting interesting projects that specific teams are working on.

The department has also implemented a “can-do award” for employees who are nominated by their peers for performing exceptional work. The prize for can-doers is some administrative leave and a mug.

DIR has also adopted a policy where employees are asked not to hold nonemergency internal agency meetings one day a week. “No meetings Thursday” is meant to help relieve how bogged down some people have become with meetings, particularly with the rise of video calls during the pandemic.

Keep Communication Open

Crawford also said that she does stay interviews with all of the department’s current employees to keep lines of communication with them open. These are periodic, 20-minute conversations where she asks employees a set of questions, including about where they see the agency headed, and where they’d like to go in their state careers.

“Most people don’t just up and vanish from a job; there was something that led them to do that,” Crawford said. “So if you want to keep those good employees and you want to keep them engaged, you need to talk to them and you need to listen.”

She said that her staff tend to be “very candid” in their responses and that she attempts to implement suggestions she hears in the interviews.

Making sure that employees have opportunities for training and that they know they have a career path that allows them to grow, is another important step, Crawford said.

She emphasized that if an agency leader, after considering their team, feels that they are irreplaceable, that’s not good. “You should be replaceable,” she said. “You should have a team that is supporting you, that if you left, they can step right in.”

Pier stressed that is crucial to communicate consistently with staff about where the department is headed and why and to also explain what is leading to changes, what the benefits of those changes will be, and how it they will affect employees.

“If you show people a path and you show them what’s at the end of that path, it is remarkable how many people will follow,” he said.

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