Mobility and motivation – new research reveals challenges of attracting and retaining executive talent in the public sector


The team behind Mandarin Careers has identified numerous challenges with sourcing and retaining senior talent, as well as measures for success.

The research was undertaken with government hiring managers, search firms, and senior executives, and has informed the development of the new Mandarin Careers platform. It aims to further support decision-makers to shape future efforts around executive careers, underpinned by an understanding of executive motivations and triggers for executive transitions.

There are sourcing and retention benefits through hiring passive candidates, and hiring senior candidates with cross-fertilised skills and experiences, according to the research. Our survey found 85% of respondents want to see government executive opportunities that explicitly value the requirements for breadth of expertise — from either working in the private sector, overseas, or in other departments.

Furthermore, 96% of surveyed government executives want to see government-related job opportunities in the private sector where government expertise is valued, and could be later drawn upon in a return to the public sector.

When prompted about job opportunities, our survey respondents said they would consider a role based on the nature of the position, its location, the leadership within an organisation, its culture, and the opportunity to make an impact in the role.

Senior external candidate attraction and talent pipelining demands a focus on creating an employee value proposition, and is best met in today’s market via smart executive sourcing advertising campaigns, the research found. A key challenge for passive job seekers was “not fully knowing the culture and challenges of the organisation.”

Furthermore, induction and retention support for senior executives in their first six months is necessary to avoid derailers occurring and to support transition. A lack of investment in professional development can lead to challenges with continuity, progress in policy implementation, and in retaining talent. This could result in cascading adverse cultural impacts, turnover, and a subsequent fractured workforce.

Sourcing and retaining senior talent

Research into the challenges with sourcing and retaining senior talent for the public sector revealed an ‘active’ job applicant field is often not a match for the senior or specialised hard-to-fill-role being filled.

Meanwhile, access to a ‘passive’ candidate market is limited, and is best reached through networks, search firms, and media. This is despite a perception from some senior executives that search firm networks are narrow.

The research also found stages of life and future capability gaps call for new attraction and retention solutions. Our surveyed audience said they would value information on hiring pathways into government, with the top three being for private sector specialists, retired leaders, and individuals returning from parental leave.

Inconsistency in skills and leadership at the senior executive level exist. Broader experiences and perspectives need to be encouraged, nurtured, sourced, and form part of merit considerations.

Stewardship towards purpose, value and outcomes is destabilised by a fractured workforce; often as a result of overdone risk-management, process, compliance, time-critical work, implementation fatigue, machinery of government changes, leadership gaps, digital shifts, and turnover.

Poor hiring practices or hiring from within, such as swift appointments, long-term acting arrangements, and poor workforce planning, can lead to costly consequences. Limitations with the hiring capability of staff on hiring panels — such as risk avoidance in merit selection, or unconscious bias — can also have adverse impacts.

Panel processes can also devalue the offer of search firms. It is known that some departments allow for search firms to bypass these clunky panel processes, and ‘value for money’ can often seem less about value, and more about reducing costs.

Sourcing limitations with advertising targeting only ‘active’ job seekers is costly and limiting, the research found. For example, LinkedIn offers a limited field of potential talent, as not all senior executives in government want a public profile, or to be approached. Seek, meanwhile, is seen as a catch-all platform with some data governance concerns with regard to housing resumes.

Government job platforms are currently not integrated or centralised across Australia, and the user experience is limited. Our research found more than 83% of respondents would prefer a centralised executive government job site over existing job sites, which links to federal, state and territory executive job opportunities, and relevant private sector opportunities.

The research also found advertising via the press to be costly and limited to ‘views’ on the one day that the ad is placed. It also lacks a digital function to embed video, and additional content to promote the organisation adds a further cost.

A key challenge for passive job seekers, as identified in our audience research, was not knowing if the opportunity is genuine versus a preferred internal candidate, for the purpose of a merit-based process. Some search firms are known to offer a convenient ‘hands off’ option for government, and senior candidates can feel like ‘fillers’ for a shortlist.

Limited information from government also reduces senior candidate engagement. Our survey found passive job seekers believe that a lack of access to internal department information is a key challenge, when competing with internal applicants.

Motivations for senior movements in our audience research revealed some insights that may support hiring managers to pivot their thinking in senior executive attraction, induction and retention efforts.

For government executives, top motivators to consider a move to the private sector were to make a difference with a progressive organisation, build breadth and depth of expertise, and have greater independence and authority to make a difference.

To consider leaving the public sector, the top challenges were loss of job security (including salary, hours etc), changing cultures, and loss of connections/access to information.

For non-government executives, to consider a move to the public sector, the top motivators were to have the opportunity to work on something significant, have a meaningful impact that serves the Australian community, and to add value with private sector expertise and insights.

To consider leaving the private sector and moving to the public sector, the top challenges were changing cultures (negative assumptions/perceptions of public sector, poor transition support, and negative impact on career trajectory/security of tenure.

Mandarin Careers was designed and developed with funding from the Australian government through the Australian Communications and Media Authority, under the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund.

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