Blandford Town Administrator Joshua Garcia and Southborough Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale

Cities and towns were already contending with pressures on the available workforce associated with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation when the COVID-19 pandemic caused an acceleration in the rate of retirements over the past year. The lean staffing structures of many municipalities, as well as the older average age of public employees, raises the stakes for communities facing these challenges.

The knowledge and service vacuums that can occur when key employees leave local government can pose threats to operational and fiscal stability. Vacancies disrupt routines and can potentially derail important projects. The search for replacements diverts time and effort away from other objectives, and, in the case of a prolonged vacancy, a community may need to expend additional, unanticipated funds on contract services to fill the gap. Further, remaining staff are often called upon to backfill roles, train inexperienced newcomers, or improvise creative solutions — all of which divert resources from other vital tasks.

Local leaders are advised to be attentive to measures that can help manage the risks associated with employee departures, whether they can be anticipated (such as retirements) or not. To minimize the disruptions of employee transitions, municipalities can take proactive, concrete steps to plan for succession in key positions.

Communities with dedicated human resources departments may be better able to employ systematic approaches, while small towns that operate with very few employees in each department often find it difficult to groom in-house candidates for critical roles, or to cross-train staff to hold the line during vacancies at any level.

Succession planning strategies
While municipalities face varying challenges, the following are some strategies that leaders can pursue to ensure smooth personnel transitions:
• Assign succession planning objectives to the human resources director or to the town manager, city manager or similar officeholder as part of annual goal setting. In smaller communities without an HR department or administrator, consider forming an ad hoc succession committee or include the objectives in the mission of a standing personnel committee.

• Within the community’s organizational structure, identify operationally crucial positions and determine those that may be hardest to replace due to the required skills and knowledge.

• Provide access to professional development opportunities for employees and encourage their use. Ensure that cross-training is taking place within departments, and, when appropriate, among departments. Develop procedure manuals with step-by-step instructions for the most critical tasks, at a minimum.

• Identify employees with the skills, aptitudes and interest in being promoted, including those who might currently work in other departments. Systematically develop the knowledge and competencies of those employees through mentoring, funding training opportunities, setting up job shadowing practices, and delegating increasing responsibilities within their departments.

• Especially in small municipalities with limited personnel, department heads and executive staff should cultivate professional network relationships to source for potential recruits.

• Survey compensation in similar, nearby communities to ensure that your community is sufficiently competitive to quickly refill vacancies with good replacements.

• When informed of a pending departure, plan for time overlap, if possible, so that the departing employee can help orient and train his or her replacement.

• If positions are not able to be filled in a timely manner, use temporary/interim staffing to ensure continuity of operations.

• Evaluate options for changing or merging positions or titles, sharing costs with other towns, or contracting out for services as alternatives to filling a vacancy.

Local examples
Southborough Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale, who handles human resources duties in her town, said “efficient and thoughtful succession planning” is an important tool.

“It provides an opportunity to on-board much more quickly, decreases the time spent bringing a manager up to speed, and provides a quick transition when we promote from within,” she said. “It’s also fiscally prudent, with low recruitment costs. The icing on the cake is the morale boost it provides when it is handled swiftly and soundly.”

Blandford Town Administrator Joshua Garcia said employee retention and succession planning “are critical to avoid gaps in services and mitigate any potential liability to the business of the local government and the safety of the public.”

In his small town (pop. 1,200), he said, “it’s difficult to compete with large cities when it comes to attracting strong qualified candidates to carry out critical roles in town. Therefore, my planning is target-specific, flexible and sometimes non-traditional.”

Garcia said he tries to target candidates who are planning to retire, have retired, or are looking for a part-time role.

“Creative planning and flexibility are important,” he said.

Zack Blake is Chief of the Technical Assistance Bureau at the Division of Local Services, and Jared Curtis and Tara Lynch are members of the bureau’s team. This article will also be published in the DLS’s City & Town on June 3.