How Governments Can Keep Their Employees Happy

As a Tennessee agency has shown, employee engagement isn't unattainable.
February 2019
(Shutterstock)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

The office of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury audits state and local government entities and is involved in the general financial and administrative oversight of state government. It has some 550 employees. I worked there about 30 years ago and have good memories, but I was still surprised to learn that it had repeatedly won recognition as one of the state’s best places to work -- not just among public agencies but compared to businesses as well. In a survey conducted under the auspices of the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean, the comptroller’s office has ranked in the top 10 in the “large company” category for the last three years.

Workplace rankings are essentially ratings of employee engagement, based on worker surveys. I was surprised by the comptroller’s ranking not just because it seemed hard to imagine that a bunch of auditors, accountants and finance types would be so happy about their jobs, but also because government agencies generally score considerably worse than businesses on these surveys. Last year, for example, the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that produces an annual ranking of best places to work in the federal government, reported that only 13 federal agencies scored above the average for the private sector.

The growing interest in public-sector employee engagement in recent years is encouraging, given the increasing difficulty governments are having attracting and retaining dedicated workers. Engaged employees are better employees. As management consultant and author Tony Schwartz wrote in the Harvard Business Review, more than a hundred studies have found that “the most engaged employees -- those who report they’re fully invested in their jobs and committed to their employers -- are significantly more productive, drive higher customer satisfaction and outperform those who are less engaged.”

The Tennessean’s rankings are based on employee surveys by Energage, a company that runs about 50 such programs across the country, usually through media partners. One common finding, according to Bob Helbig, Energage’s media partnerships director, is that pay and benefits aren’t the main factors driving employee engagement. “Instead, belief in the leadership of the organization and in its direction are huge,” he says, “and appreciation of employees and meaningfulness matter.”

This has real implications for government managers, who generally have less flexibility than businesses to reward employees with raises and bonuses. That’s a message that Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson understands. When I asked him how his office scored so high on the workplace rankings, he said it was primarily a matter of communication -- praising employees when they do a good job and constantly emphasizing the mission of the office, which is a simple one: “to make government work better.” And he recognizes that communication needs to be a two-way street. “Our employees have a lot to say,” Wilson says, “and if we listen to them we might learn something.”

While engaging employees can be harder for public organizations than for private companies, I would argue that it is more important. When organizational improvement occurs in the public sector, writes Robert J. Lavigna, a former Wisconsin state personnel executive who now directs the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, “customers and stakeholders will be more satisfied with the services they receive. This improved satisfaction leads to more trust in government.” And public servants will feel more engaged when they see that their work is trusted. “In other words,” Lavigna writes, “a virtuous cycle.” Government can’t have too many of those.