How to Get Public Workers to Care About Their Jobs

A book by a government HR expert explains what drives public-sector workers and how that differs from the private sector.
August 2014
Getting public workers engaged in their jobs has long been a challenge. Shutterstock
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

It’s about a whole lot more than free pizza, casual Fridays and the boss’s open-door policy. That’s the main message of Engaging Government Employees, a book by Robert Lavigna, and it’s one that leaders of government organizations large and small should pay attention to.

Lavigna, who was a Governing Public Official of the Year in 2000, is currently director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has more than 30 years of experience leading public-sector personnel operations. But he tells you straight up that insights “culled from my many years of experience” are not the basis of his book. Instead, he has built it on empirical research.

There’s no doubt that employee engagement has a powerful impact on organizational outcomes. Studying private-sector organizations in critical areas such as profitability and customer satisfaction, the polling firm Gallup found that high-engagement organizations were almost 20 percent more productive than their low-engagement counterparts. While measures such as profitability are not a factor in government organizations, Lavigna cites a broad range of studies showing that results such as success in achieving strategic goals are closely associated with employee engagement.

As with the Gallup study, much of the literature on employee engagement focuses on private-sector organizations. Engaging government employees requires a very different approach and is arguably more difficult. For one thing, as Lavigna notes, government organizations and their workers increasingly are being “denigrated and stigmatized as under-worked and overpaid” -- resulting, not surprisingly, in “a sharp decline in employee morale and engagement.” These are negative influences that private-sector employers and their workers have not had to face.

Another difference is that the factors motivating government employees are different from those that drive their private-sector counterparts. Public servants are more likely to be motivated by incentives such as the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve, which makes the line of sight between their roles and their agencies’ larger missions of paramount importance.

Lavigna’s book has three vital components. First, he lays out a framework for how to systematically improve engagement that uses neither hunches nor intuition but empirical measures. Second, he gives examples of free resources, including valid and reliable survey instruments that government leaders can use. And third, he offers examples of agencies at every government level that have successfully used these tools to improve engagement.

Few governments can afford more employees, so it’s vital that the ones they have work at high levels of performance. That will come only from workers who are engaged because their leaders have made employee engagement a strategic imperative and have pursued it seriously, steadily and systematically.