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This week’s blog was authored by Amy Thomson, Director of Human Resources for Elgin County. Amy is currently enrolled in Western University’s MPA program.

Having just submitted a final research paper for Western University’s MPA program in July, with my research question being “What impacts staff retention in local government?”, OMHRA’s August blog topic was timely!

Given my recent extensive research on the topic, I wanted to share what I found with OMHRA members. Thus, I took on the challenge of abbreviating my 70-page research paper down to 500 words… I hope it is helpful.

In today’s competitive labour market, especially within critical public sector healthcare roles and with many municipal services being deemed essential to the livelihood of residents, it is of significant importance that local governments understand how to improve retention of their top talent. In seeking to explain the reasons why local government staff appear to be turning-over at a growing rate, I sought global research related to what impacts retention of public sector staff and subsequently facilitated a case-study using turnover statistics from select rural southwestern Ontario municipalities. The case studies indicated an upward trend in voluntary turnover of local government staff over the past decade, and showed much alignment with the broader research. This confirmed the additional challenge felt in rural public sector organizations, and notable spikes during times of top-leadership turnover as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Determinants of turnover fall within three categories:

  1. Individual characteristics;
  2. Workplace structures; and
  3. Sectoral conditions

Why do we need to be concerned about the upward trend of municipal staff turnover? Partly because turnover is costly; both from a financial perspective (including cost of recruitment, on-boarding and training) and from the human perspective, (considering existing staff morale, increased workloads when there are gaps, instability caused by position vacancies and detrimental impacts on the quality of service delivery). Particularly in the context of public sector workers, many factors are correlated much more strongly with retention and turnover than compensation; in part due to the intrinsic motivators that bring individuals to the public and not-for-profit sectors (also known as public service motivation).

The literature indicates many variables are tied to public sector turnover. In summary,

1) Individual characteristics include job and pay satisfaction, performance feedback, sense of loyalty (organizational commitment), autonomy, workload, opportunity for growth and development, and job stability. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational characteristics impact turnover intentions at the individual level.

2) Organizational structures correlated with turnover include organizational performance and reputation, ethical and supportive leadership, rural or remote location of the workplace, political controversy, employee supports, professional development provisions, top-leader turnover, collegial atmosphere and the physical condition of the workplace.

3) Sectoral conditions correlated with turnover include the political climate, labour supply and demand, and communication and information related to the work that the sector does.


In consideration of the vast and varying impacts on local government staff retention, the following are closing recommendations for municipalities in the current, highly competitive labour market.

  • In order to improve retention based upon individual characteristics, municipalities should first conduct staff surveys to identify satisfiers (pull factors) and dis-satisfiers (push factors), and develop targeted initiatives in areas requiring improvement toward improving staff satisfaction.
  • Review exit interview data to determine why staff are actually leaving.
  • Organizational level efforts to improve service quality and promote an innovation culture are shown to improve retention.
  • Human Resources Management practices such as succession and compensation planning, offering flexibility, ensuring manageable workloads, health and wellbeing promotion, and quickly backfilling vacancies are connected with improved public sector retention.
  • Developing a highly ethical leadership team that promotes autonomy will assist in retaining the best, as will ensuring new hires are well supported by both leadership and peers.
  • Strong communication of the organizations mission, vision and values will promote organizational identification, which is shown to decrease intentions to leave.
  • Public service motivation research shows that increases in pay can actually be substituted by improved social identification; encouraging public sector employers to ensure positive corporate cultures that are comprised of socially supportive leaders and coworkers.

Ultimately, municipalities will enjoy improved performance and service delivery if they focus efforts on individual, corporate, and sectoral levers, with the ultimate goal of attracting and retaining highly qualified staff.

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