Satisfying, Successful Engagements

Getting buy-in from employees leads to greater productivity – and upward opportunity.
May 7, 2019 AT 11:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is
Data-Driven Employee-Engaged

“It is the strong suspicion of everyone in the research world that if employees are engaged there will be better services,” says Tom Miller, president of the for-profit National Research Center. “As a result, taxpayers will appreciate the quality of life in the community that local government staff are hired to deliver.”

Employee engagement is one of the factors Equipt to Innovate has determined is critical to cities’ future success.

In 2014,  the International Public Management Association for Human Resources indicated that, “An ‘engaged’ public sector employee is five times more likely to be very satisfied, five times more likely to recommend his/her employer and four times less likely to leave.” (Miller’s firm is working on coming up with more current data.)

Sadly, cities often hesitate to study the level of commitment of their employees for fear of getting negative answers that will anger their elected bosses. This phenomenon is an obstacle to many performance management efforts.

Still, experts in the field who deal with dozens of cities almost universally report they see the connections that Miller describes in the real world. 

“Engaged employees will deliver,” says Robert Lavigna, director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, “because they feel good about their work, they have developmental opportunities, feel valued and recognized.”

In the last Governing and Living Cities Equipt to Innovate survey, Fayetteville, N.C., emerged as the top performer in employee engagement. It was also the top performing city overall. We speculate the conjunction of these two facts isn’t a coincidence.

The city has long been concerned about being an attractive employer, but over the last years it had a renewed focus on using the data it garnered from its employee surveys, conducted every couple of years.

“To improve something,” says Rebecca Jackson, strategic performance analytics director for Fayetteville, “you always have to be able to look back.”

Longitudinal data about employee satisfaction gives the city the capacity to do just that. 

One of the critical findings Fayetteville garnered from its ability to use its data prowess to cross tabulate data is that “success (in employee engagement) aligns to opportunities for training,” says Jackson.

The analysis of employee surveys also uncovered some areas for improvement that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. For example, getting approval for contracts that go through multiple layers stymied the ability of employees to move forward with their work quickly and successfully. Since contract management is a role that the city undertakes, this shortcoming had been disappointing and disillusioning employees.

When the city discovered that nearly 40 percent of employees didn’t understand how their department’s strategic plan connects to their work, it set about holding an employee summit to connect people to their purposes. Those meetings also encouraged a collaborative approach, with one participant, at least, from each program.

“We wanted someone from patrol, permitting, community watch, IT systems, budgeting and so on,” recalls Jackson.

Sensibly enough, one of the big topics of discussion was to uncover the bottlenecks in contracting. So now, the city is looking at cutting down the number of individuals who need to approve any individual contract.

El Paso, another city singled out by Equipt to Innovate as a high performer in employee engagement, has emphasized a particularly powerful approach to maintaining retention by encouraging employee advancement. Its fire department has made a particular point of building cross-functional teams through training, which gives employees various areas of expertise. This opens them up to be considered for a wide variety of jobs; providing a career of advancement and opportunity.

Paula Powell is currently the animal services director for the community, a job she relishes. She started working for El Paso about 25 years ago in parks and recreation helping children in camp, and rose up through the ranks and was ultimately named assistant director.

“There was nothing you could do in parks and recreation that you could do in animal services,” she recalls.

But by the time she had reached the assistant director level, the city manager identified her potential for leadership, as the result of participation in a cross-functional team that gave her exposure to a swath of city opportunities.

“The city manager saw my strengths,” she said, “and saw the opportunity. I really wanted to be a director.”

And so, the transition took place. The very tone of her voice in talking about her path and her current job may be the best indicator of the success in employee engagement the city engenders with this flexibility.

“When I came here as a soldier, I never thought I would stay here,” she says.

These monthly columns, authored by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, are in support of Equipt to Innovate, a framework for creating high-performance government, jointly created by the nonprofit Living Cities and Governing.