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Ellory Monks

Lover of infrastructure, cities, environment. Also: women engineers, Rice University. Co-Founder of @TheAtlas4Cities & 2x mom.

Created: Friday, May 17, 2019 | Updated: Thursday, April 28, 2022

City Onboarding & Succession Planning: Tips for Knowledge-Sharing

During another unConference session at #TLG19, city participants discussed the challenge and importance of institutionalizing knowledge in cities. The times and places where this challenge becomes glaringly obvious are bookends: city onboarding and succession planning.

Ideas for Improving City Onboarding

Many of the city staff that participated in this session shared a common problem: once new hires have completed HR’s onboarding, they show up at their respective departments but still require quite a bit of training. There is often very little (sometimes zero!) standard practice for how this onboarding should go. The result is that many new hires feel lost and isolated when they are supposed to be integrating into their department, and high staff turnover rates follow.

City onboarding & succession planning were both discussed at Alliance for Innovation's #TLG19
City onboarding & succession planning were both discussed at Alliance for Innovation’s #TLG19

How can city onboarding be improved? One approach was discussed in quite a bit of detail: after formal HR onboarding, one city takes an entire year to complete a more casual, department-by-department onboarding. Each department runs periodic tours and intro sessions for new folks. Before a new employee has finished their first year, they’ve done hands-on tours, demos and intro sessions with every city department.

The benefits of this approach have been:

  • Improved situational awareness of new employees: they understand how different city departments come together as a whole to deliver services.
  • Increased sense of mission: there may be nothing better than hands-on tours with police, fire & waste management to give new employees a sense of purpose. We discussed at length how valuable this sense of purpose was for new employees, especially for those from younger generations.
  • Additional opportunities to reinforce culture: Instead of just a onetime PowerPoint presentation about city culture given during a formal city onboarding session, the tours offer tons of opportunities to demonstrate city culture over an entire year.

Ideas for Improving City Succession Planning

The discussion about how to improve city succession planning really centered on the issue of institutionalizing knowledge. Even seemingly small efforts to institutionalize knowledge – like using digital document sharing, for example – can be met with a lot of resistance.

In the end, the group agreed that a lot of that resistance to institutionalizing knowledge amongst city staff can be traced to job insecurity or a fear of job loss. It was also agreed that the only way to address those underlying fears is by building organizational trust and confidence.

City participants also discussed some very tactical ideas to improve succession planning. They included:

  • Designating a “second” on important projects and processes so that there is some redundancy built in.
  • Build a digital knowledge sharing repository, but be sure that 1) it is easy to use and 2) there is one person designated to help other staff adopt the new technology.
  • When a high-level staff person indicates their intention to retire, designate someone on their team (does not necessarily have to be their replacement if that person has not been hired yet) to shadow that person as much as possible for at least a month, and encourage the person shadowing to take tons of notes and ask tons of questions.

For all of these solutions, the group discussed the importance of:

  1. Building a city culture that works across departments and makes conscious efforts to break down departmental silos.
  2. Understanding the underlying motivations of the person retiring and harnessing those motivations: is the person concerned about their legacy? their reputation? do they just want to get out of there as fast as possible?
  3. Meaningful performance evaluations: We discussed 360 evaluations and the United States Marine Corps’ peer evaluations as models to look into. Check out this study from the 1950s about USMC peer evaluation. The process works so well that it has remained largely unchanged over the decades.

One major outstanding question: does anyone have onboarding plans, checklists, etc. they can share or point to? If yes, comment on this article and Ellory will reach out! This was a request from several participants.

H/T to Lee Bramlett (Organizational Development and Training Leader, City of Olathe), Jen Prehn (Business Operations Coordinator at City of Westminster, CO) & Helen Sangster (GIS Analyst, City of Olathe) for taking the lead on this discussion…and sharing their notes!

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