Career & Jobs

The Public Sector Is Losing The War For Top Freelance Talent

A recent report in GovFlex, an online talent marketplace for US government contracting, described the future of public-sector freelancing this way:

“As government agencies and contractors adapt to new realities in the rapidly changing workforce they will find … Freelancing has become far more extensive while encompassing a wider range of skills than many may realize. Top professionals and those with high-demand skillsets in industry and government are increasingly choosing to work independently.”

Freelancers already provide major public-sector support. According to Marketplace, over four million freelancers work federally. A recent article of mine describes how almost one million freelancers – adjunct or “sessional” professors – are teaching in US classrooms.  Freelancers are a significant factor in the public sector workforce across countries, levels of government, and the full non-profit spectrum.

Here in NYC, the Freelancer Union recently posted: “Non-profits make good freelance clients.” But do they?

In my recent Global Survey on Freelancing, co-sponsored by the University of Toronto, 1900 freelancers from over 75 freelance platforms and more than 30 countries shared their views and experiences as freelancers. The survey enabled a comparison of the experiences of freelancers primarily working with different client groups:

·     Startups / SMB (small and medium sized businesses)

·     Enterprise / large corporates

·     A good mix of both Startup/SMB and enterprise companies

·     Not-for-profit organizations (Education, government, NGOs, etc.)

A series of items I dubbed the Client Satisfaction Index asked freelancers to describe a typical client experience.  And, freelancers primarily working with non-profits were consistently less positive than those working with commercial organizations.  Here are the specifics:

  • For “This organization knows how to work effectively with freelancers,” 39% of non-profit oriented freelancers rated their experience highly positive, below 47% – 42% for other client categories.
  • On “Work deliverables, milestones and timelines are generally fair and realistic,” 39% of non-profit freelancer strongly agreed, below 48% – 43% for commercial organizations.
  • When asked, “This client requires top quality work from freelancers,” 56% of non-profit freelancers gave positive ratings, below 72% – 64% for commercial categories.
  • 36% of non-profit freelancers agreed that, “My client project manager knows how to work with freelancers.” But, for-profit clients were more highly rated, 49% – 45%.
  • On “I have access to the information I need to meet my deliverables for this client,” 40% of non-profit freelancers agreed, but below 53% – 51% for commercially oriented freelancers.
  • Asked “Client team members are normally friendly and helpful when I have a question or need” 58% of non-profit freelancers agreed but so did 72% – 65% for commercial freelancers.
  • 58% of non-profit based freelancers agreed “I am treated fairly and with respect in my dealings with this client,” versus 72% – 64% in other client categories.
  • 46% of non-profit based freelancers say “The client team members I’ve worked with are technically and professionally competent,” lower than 59% -49% for commercial clients.
  • On pay, 42% of non-profit based freelancers feel, “I am paid fairly for my work for this client.” 54% – 52% of commercially focused freelancers responded positively.
  • The last item, “The work I’m doing for this client is interesting and satisfying,” drew a stronger rating among non-profit based freelancers; 63% agreed versus 65% to 58% for commercial freelancers.

The narrative is very consistent: Freelancers working in the government and non-profit space are more critical of their experience than freelancers primarily working with commercial organizations. 

This is a problem if, as most predict, governments will increasingly depend on freelancers to meet their overall talent needs. The US government already allocates over $660 billion dollars annually to contracted services. The UK government allocates a third of its budget on external services. So does Germany.  These nations are typical, and the percentage is growing.   

Beyond governments, the range of non-profits depends on freelancers to staff critical work for which internal expertise is unavailable, or unaffordable. So, what can public sector and not-for-profit organizations do to build a  stronger relationship and reputation with the freelance community?

Improvement starts with recognizing the need: Knowing the value of a stronger relationship and reputation with freelancers. Governing.com makes the case this way: “Turning to the gig economy could help governments overcome a number of staffing pressures they are currently contending with. A strong economy has led many employees to seek employment outside the public sector… States and localities further continue to lose significant numbers of their most experienced employees to retirement.” 

Well managed agencies and NGOs regularly undertake a meaningful and detailed organizational talent assessment. These days, considering the “Great Resignation,” the urgency is even greater.  Public organizations should know the potential talent gap they face, where freelancers can and must play a critical role in closing the talent gap, and where a more flexible, blended workforce is needed in future.

Finally, public sector leaders can benefit from seeing talent marketplaces as partners in planning for the future, rather than simply as vendors. We know quite a bit about the conditions for freelance high performance. Innovators like G2i.co in tech are showing their clients how to create a win/win work environment for clients and freelancers; the relevance of G2i’s “healthy workplace” concept to public sector organizations is obvious. Talent communities like Hoxby and Freelancerclub.net, and educators like Open-Assembly, are teaching public and private organization leaders how to partner with freelancers in creating a more flexible, blended workforce. Groups like Odgers Berndtson are helping governments and NGOs learn from commercial organizations how to utilize interim (freelance) executive roles as a change or performance accelerant.

There’s no doubt that the public sector is transforming what it does, and how it does it. Forrester Research, in a report entitled, The global public sector will transform itself and society – in 2022, wrote: “Ten percent of government administrative workload will be automatedGlobally, governments will expand their use of robotic process automation … Many organizations will wrestle with change management, reallocation of work, and efforts to standardize tasks.”

Freelancers will undoubtedly play a big role in helping government and non-profits get their job done. Let’s make sure leaders understand the importance of creating a better experience for freelancers. We should not forget, as I’ve written before, the war for talent is also a war for top freelance talent.

Viva la revolution!

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