Public personnel administration is a branch of human resource management that is concerned with the acquisition, development, utilization, and compensation of a public organization’s workforce. In most cases people who have jobs in this area spend most of their time working with public entities like government offices or not-for-profit organizations to find ways of helping employees thrive and be productive, and looking for ways to help the organization set policies and regulations that relate to staff. They also sometimes work directly with employees, particularly when it comes to hearing grievances and advocating for rights. This sort of professional is often thought of as a highly specialized human resources manager.
Where It’s Found
Another way to think about the field is in terms of the general systems in which it occurs. Almost all companies have human resources or personnel administration staff, and public personnel administration is usually about the same — but where it’s found is often a little bit different, and the focus tends to be more nuanced. In most cases the field focuses on civil service, collective bargaining, and affirmative action. All three of these areas relate to how governments and other public-facing offices orient, train, and protect their workers.
Civil service, for instance, helps to protect employee rights and safeguard efficiency, and collective bargaining includes negotiated agreements that determine the conditions of employment and related benefits. Affirmative action guarantees equal employment opportunities for those individuals that belong to protected classes. Not all areas are found in all places — affirmative action, for example, only applies when there are governmental protections in place to ensure fair treatment for people of different races — but the job of the public personnel administrator is to know the relevant rules and to help organizations apply them.
The specifics of what this job entails can vary a little bit depending on the specific setting, but in general the field has four main purposes or functions. The first is planning, usually at the highest levels of the organization. This includes preparing staffing plans and budgets, deciding how employees will be used and how their strengths will be allocated, and setting pay rates and salary standards. Planning these things out before hiring happens can make employee relations a lot smoother since workers will usually have a better idea of what to expect.
Acquisition is the second main function, and this usually pertains to selecting and recruiting employees. The personnel administrator is often very involved in creating job postings and interviewing candidates, and the goal here is to recruit and retain the best people for the job. The third main area is development, which involves employee training and advancement programs as well as performance evaluations. Sanctions, the fourth function, typically deals with employer-employee relationships, and may also include matters of workplace safety and the proper method for handling grievances.
In most settings, handling employee grievances and managing employee retention are some of the most important parts of the job. Public organizations more so than private ones often have formal grievance procedures that ensure what is known as “due process” and guarantee employee rights. Due process means giving an employee the opportunity to explain and defend his or her actions. Employee retention programs focus on the importance of keeping good employees, and it includes programs such as training, development, and tuition assistance to help build loyalty and reduce turnover. Many public organizations are able to be as efficient as they are because of the talent, skill, and passion of their workforce, and people in the personnel administration field typically work to be sure this remains true over time.
Administrators typically carry out their work within the context of four core, often contradictory, societal values: responsiveness or political loyalty; the rights of the individual; efficiency, which can also be described as the ability to perform the job; and social equity, or leveling the playing field. Responsiveness relates to the importance of considering political loyalty in addition to education and experience when making employee staffing decisions. In fact, the main difference between public and private personnel administration in some cases is the political context and the intervention of politicians and their supporters in decisions affecting public employees.
Getting Started in the Field
Most professionals in this field hold university degrees in public personnel administration at either the undergraduate or graduate level. University training is almost always required, but there is often some flexibility when it comes to specific programs. A person could study human resources or personnel management generally, for instance; in some cases studies in business administration or nonprofit management would also be relevant. Much depends on the specifics of the employer and the experience and expertise of the candidate.