10 tips for building supportive government fellowship programs (and convincing participants to stay)

Friday, July 7, 2017

by Nisa Malli RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / nisamalli

In the name of innovation and openness, many public sector organizations have committed to porousness and career flexibility, grafting more agile HR mechanisms onto existing systems through short term fellowships, internships, and exchanges. It’s a model used to bring in temporary technical and subject matter expertise, attract mid-career professionals, and to recruit graduates from fields outside of public policy and political science. But as these initiatives expand, we need to think carefully about how to design these programs in order to support participants and create the conditions for success for their projects. As I wrap up a year in municipal government with the Toronto Urban Fellowship, I’ve been thinking about what makes an effective government fellowship and how we can use these kinds of programs to fill gaps in our recruitment strategies by convincing participants to stay.


  1. Think carefully about the purpose of your program when designing it: What gap in existing HR mechanisms and recruitment are you trying to solve? What is the ideal role of participants and program alumni in your organization? If you want people to stay on after their placements, what combination of experiences will best prepare them for future careers in your organization?
  2. Consider expanding your eligibility requirements beyond your organization's usual constraints. Do you really need participants with graduate degrees or would other training and professional experience suffice? Can you open this program up to other academic fields? Could participants work remotely so that they don’t need to relocate?
  3. Create cohorts so that participants will have peer community no matter where they are placed. If you are air-dropping a brand-new government recruit into a branch or division, they will need connections to other parts of the organization and peers to commiserate and problem-solve with.
  4. Ensure that the placements and projects you offer match the skillsets, experience, and interests of your recruits and your program objectives. Even early career professionals have developed expertise and experience in specific fields. Boring, frustrating, or assigning your participants to known bad managers increases the likelihood of mid-program dropouts.
  5. Build an onboarding and training program. What do recruits need to know about your organization before starting their placement? What training can you provide them in advance and during the program that will make their immersion in government easier? Remember that if your participants come from diverse backgrounds they may not all need the same training modules; an urban planner doesn’t need City Council 101; a policy analyst doesn’t need to learn how to write a briefing note.
  6. Give them the tools they need to excel at their jobs. For some roles, this might look like specific software or technology, for others it might just be remote access to email. For everyone, quick access to health and dental insurance, vacation days, and sick days can go a long way towards preventing burnout and recruiting the best from other sectors. New employees, especially ones in short rotations, will face challenges getting support from corporate functions like HR and IT. Clear some of the red tape cobwebs away for them in advance if you can to make sure they don’t waste the first week or two just trying to get an ID badge and a computer login.
  7. Pay them at a level appropriate to their experience and the level of work expected from them (this might mean jumping some internal HR hoops to give participants higher seniority or pay than other new recruits). Student debt and increasing rental prices are making it harder to accept pay cuts, even to work on worthwhile causes.
  8. If your program has rotational placements, ensure they match the length of the projects. Four months isn’t usually enough time to start and finish anything; consider 6-month, 9-month or 12-month placements.
  9. Develop an exit strategy. Your organization is investing a lot of money in program participants; if you want them to stay, create bridging mechanisms to make it easier for their placement hosts to keep them or give them preferential hiring in open competitions. Maintain their access to internal job postings if they aren’t hired on right away and make sure gaps between postings don’t impact their benefits in their next position.
  10. Document success and failure! Track and report on what past participants worked on and learned and their recommendations for future iterations of the program. Fresh eyes can provide useful perspectives on how your organization operates and the work you do. This might look like failure/impact reports, exit surveys and interviews, a project database, or bringing alumni in to present to next year’s cohort.