The Roadmap to Engaging Government’s Employees

Surveying them is the first step. It's important to do it right -- and then act on the results.
July 26, 2018
Road with checkpoints.
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By Robert J. Lavigna  |  Contributor
Director of CPS HR Consulting's Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement

It's become an article of faith in government that improving employee engagement will drive improved performance and service. That's not surprising, given the documented successes of private-sector firms in engaging their workers and reaping the financial benefits.

However, what works in the private sector does not necessarily translate seamlessly to government. Raising the level of employee engagement in the public-sector environment -- where policymakers answer to voters rather than the market, outcomes can be hard to measure, most of what government does is highly visible, and civil-service systems are perceived as constraining administrators' flexibility -- presents particular challenges. Despite these challenges, however, research in government has also revealed that improving engagement can improve performance.

In the 18 months since we launched the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, we've conducted employee-engagement surveys of thousands of public-sector workers across the nation. We've then worked with these employees' organizations to help them act on the survey results.

Through this work, we've learned a thing or two, to misquote that ubiquitous insurance-company TV commercial, about how the public sector can better engage its employees in the important work they do and thereby attract, develop and retain the talent government needs to deliver for its stakeholders. Here are some of the lessons we've learned:

Make improving employee engagement a strategic priority. With due respect to my human-resources colleagues and the profession I've devoted 30-plus years to, employee engagement can't be perceived as just another HR program. Instead, it must be an organizational priority. Here, for example, is one of the strategic goals of the Napa Sanitation District in California: "Maintain a dynamic and skilled workforce through employee engagement, professional development and opportunities for advancement." Note that this is not an HR department goal. It's an enterprise-wide goal.

Emphasize the business case. The entire organization -- senior leaders, managers, supervisors and front-line employees -- must understand that engagement is not just another touchy-feely fad or about making workers happy all the time. Research has shown that high-engagement government organizations do better at achieving strategic goals, delivering responsive customer service, devising innovative solutions, recruiting and retaining talent while improving attendance, and keeping workplaces safer.

Commit from the top. Likewise, leaders should commit not just to surveying employees but also to taking action -- and clearly articulating this commitment. When we conduct a kickoff meeting before we launch a survey, we always ask the CEO (such as the city manager, county administrator or agency director) to open the meeting. We also suggest that the leader send a message to all employees announcing and explaining the survey.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. No surprise here. Communication is the key to achieving a high survey response rate and sustaining engagement. This means communicating before, during and after the survey to make sure employees know why the organization is focusing on engagement, how the survey will be administered, and how the results will be acted on. As the leader of one high-engagement agency told us, "We talk about this -- engagement -- all the time."

Reach all employees. The most efficient way to conduct surveys is online. However, there may be many employees who do not have access to email and computers in their workplaces. One solution is to encourage employees to complete the survey on their smartphones or tablets or to provide employees with hard-copy invitations that have links to the survey and then provide opportunities for them to complete it through special sessions, laptops or kiosks.

Involve unions. Labor should be a partner in building engagement. Ideally, union leaders should be advocates for the process, encouraging their members to complete the survey and helping the organization take action. When we do a survey kickoff meeting, we want union leaders to be in the room to hear why the organization is doing the survey and the CEO's commitment to act on the results.

Keep it confidential ... Employees must believe that no one in their organization will see their individual responses. Employee confidentiality is why many organizations use third parties to conduct surveys. When our Institute does a survey, we guarantee that individual survey responses will be confidential and report only summary data.

… But share survey results. When employees are asked to complete a survey, they expect to hear what the results are. If there is silence about the results, employees are more likely to resist actions taken in response to survey results and will also be less likely to respond to future surveys. We recommend sharing organization-wide results within 30 days of when the results are received.

Drill down. Report survey results at the lowest organizational level possible, such as by department, division, bureau or location. This makes the results actionable and promotes accountability for that action.

When we conduct a survey, we provide reports and recommendations for individual work units and demographic groups with at least 10 responses.

And take action. Unfortunately, some organizations survey their employees, achieve a high response rate and then declare victory. This is a fatal mistake. Organizations that do this may find that engagement declines, not improves.

But it's also important to set priorities. No organization can address every issue that comes out of an employee survey. Like many survey providers, we analyze survey results to identify the key drivers of engagement. This helps the organization understand, and then take action on, the most important issues first.