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Public Employee Surveys: Worthwhile or Worthless?

It depends on how governments use the results.

A truckload of research points to the advantages of having engaged employees, and surveys provide a useful benchmark for measuring it. While such surveys aren’t as common in government as they are in the private sector, they are getting more popular. That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that even when governments do survey employees, they’re often slow to make changes based on the results. 

If you don’t do anything with the data, “you’re going to be worse off than if you had not conducted the survey,” said Bob Lavigna, author of Engaging Government Employees and assistant vice chancellor for human resources at the University of Wisconsin. 

Not surprisingly, lack of action can have a negative impact on employees' faith in their employers. For example, in King County, Wash., "action taken as a result of the 2012 survey was spotty throughout the organization," said Brooke Bascom, employee engagement manager for King County. The result: When employees took the 2015 survey, only 36 percent thought their responses would lead to changes. "We really had to focus on building trust," said Bascom.

So after the 2015 survey, officials decided to make it an annual event and to dramatically step up the county’s reaction to what it learned. To start, 440 managers and supervisors were trained on how to talk to employees about the survey and how to translate its findings into an action plan. They were then divided up into groups and assigned specific areas from the survey to focus on, making it more likely that tangible and measurable actions will result.  One group, for instance, focused on “growth and development,” a common area of weakness in King County, according to the surveys. To improve it, they’re giving more information to employees about online learning opportunities and creating professional development plans for every person.

Regardless of the employers’ response, a survey is only as useful as its employees’ feedback. That’s why the city and county of Denver started a contest to boost participation in the survey. 

“We thought, ‘participation is so critical, let’s make it fun,’” said Karen Niparko, executive director of the Office of Human Resources there. 

Departments that reach 100 percent participation win an award, and managers also came up with their own rewards. For example, when Niparko’s department reached its participation goal, she held a brunch for her workers with the top managers acting as waiters. 

And the incentives have paid off. In 2015, 73 percent of the city’s employees filled out the survey -- up from 63 percent in 2013.

In fairness, though, turning survey responses into action can be difficult when money is tight. Back in 2012 and 2013 -- when revenues were low, and hiring and pay freezes weren’t uncommon -- we interviewed multiple state human resources directors. We found that many of them were reluctant to tap employees’ opinions because there were still very limited resources to deal with their complaints. 

At the time, one HR director said he believed the state was “missing something” by not doing a survey, but “when you do those surveys, you raise the expectation that you’re going to react to them and sometimes that involves money.”

But even in difficult times, Lavigna believes surveys are well worth doing. 

The University of Wisconsin conducted its first employee survey in 2012, right after the state eliminated collective bargaining rights for the public sector and increased employee benefit costs. Even though there was a lot of negativity in the air, “we wanted to know how our people were feeling. … We should be making decisions based on data -- not on instinct.” 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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