Want to Engage Your Employees? There’s Science Behind That.

A growing body of research sheds a lot of light on how governments can better engage public workers and improve performance.
October 23, 2017
By Robert J. Lavigna  |  Contributor
Director of CPS HR Consulting' Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement

I speak and write about employee engagement often because I believe in its power to improve performance, including in government. Earlier this year, after I gave one such talk, I was approached by a county-government CEO. He told me that he had heard a lot about engagement but, until my talk, hadn't realized that there is a "science" around it.

I was struck by his comment. No, it's not rocket science, but there is a growing body of research showing that high levels of employee engagement are linked to superior organizational performance.

In the private sector, the research has documented that high-engagement companies outperform low-engagement firms on key financial metrics. And as I detail in my book Engaging Government Employees, research in the public sector also shows that engagement is linked to outcomes that matter. These include achieving strategic goals, delivering responsive customer service, creating innovative solutions and retaining talented employees.

In other words, improving engagement is not another touchy-feely fad or about keeping employees happy all the time. It's about making government perform -- to help it deliver the kind of responsive service that leads to improved citizen satisfaction and builds trust in government.

So what is the state of employee engagement in the public sector? The short answer is that there is a lot of room for improvement. Last year my organization, the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, conducted its first annual poll of employee engagement. Our research is distinctive because our results are nationally representative (that is, not based just on who our clients are); we report the results by level of government; and we identify the factors that "drive" engagement, also by level of government.

With so much research showing that employee engagement is linked to performance, including in government, we might conclude that organizations have gotten the message, focused on engagement and built it to a high level. Unfortunately, that would be incorrect. Our poll results show that employee engagement remains low in both the public and private sectors, with government lagging the private sector.

As the chart below shows, according to our survey 44 percent of private-sector employees are fully engaged, compared to 38 percent of government workers. In the public sector, local-government employees have the highest level of fully engaged employees, at 44 percent (equal to the private sector), followed by federal workers (34 percent) and state employees (29 percent).

Levels of Engagement

Although these results show a somewhat higher level of engagement than some other studies have, our results are still disappointing. While the local-government score is highest among all three levels of government, and equals the private sector's, this isn't cause for too much celebration: Fewer than one of every two city and county employees are fully engaged. The state-government results, showing only 29 percent full engaged, are particularly troubling.

We also analyzed our poll results to identify what drives higher levels of engagement, looking at both workplace and cultural factors. It may surprise you to learn that the top workplace drivers are the same in the public and private sectors. In order, they are "leadership and managing change," "my work," and "training and development." When employees feel good about these factors, engagement tends to be high.

The rest of the story for government, however, is that the public-sector score is significantly lower than the private sector's for the top driver, leadership and managing change. In business, 65 percent of respondents reported feeling good about leadership and change management in their companies, compared to 55 percent of government employees. This 10-point gap is the largest of all the workplace factors we studied.

Similarly, for the second-most-important driver, training and development, the private-sector score was three percentage points higher. Only for the third driver, my work, was the public-sector score higher than the private-sector score.

As for cultural factors, the top driver in both the public and private sectors is "I feel valued for the work I do." Again, government employees had significantly lower scores than their private-sector colleagues. About 67 percent of government employees feel valued, compared to 72 percent of private-sector respondents.

The second-most-important cultural driver in both sectors is "I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things." Only 64 percent of government respondents agreed with this statement, compared to 70 percent in the private sector.

So what can government leaders and administrators learn from these results? I don't believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to improving engagement in government, especially since there are about 90,000 government jurisdictions just in the United States. Each organization needs to measure its own level of employee engagement (Ideally through regular employee surveys), understand its strengths and weaknesses, and then act on the results.

However, it can also be useful to understand what our research results mean. For example, leadership and managing change was the lowest-scoring category in government, yet was identified as the most important driver of engagement.

Therefore, we need to focus as never before on building leadership capability. We have an opportunity to develop a new generation of government leaders who can manage change, build high-engagement organizations and thereby deliver performance.

In addition to leadership, government should pay attention to the following drivers:

• Managing change more effectively.

• Investing in employee training and development.

• Making sure employees feel valued.

• Creating the conditions for employees to be innovative.

• Emphasizing the organization's mission and employees' contributions to that mission.

Improving public-employee engagement is not an end in itself. Instead, it's about performance. Enabling public servants to excel enables government to excel.