What Have Public Sector Organizations Done to Improve Engagement?

By Bob Lavigna for the Public Sector Digest, Summer 2015

Some government jurisdictions and agencies have taken the business case for higher engagement to heart. They have systematically surveyed their employees to assess the level of employee engagement, analyzed the results, and then acted on the data to improve engagement.

With more than 90,000 public sector jurisdictions in the U.S. alone, I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to improving employee engagement. Instead, each jurisdiction or agency should assess its own level of engagement (ideally through one of the available valid employee engagement surveys), analyze the results to determine what areas to focus on, and then take action. This should be followed by periodic re-surveys to see if the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction. In other words, agencies shouldn’t administer the medicine before diagnosing the condition. That notwithstanding, it is useful to understand some of the steps public sector organizations have taken to improve employee engagement. The following are examples.

  1. Make building a culture of engagement a strategic priority. Successful engagement initiatives are strategic and authentic. That is, they are not a program foisted on the organization by HR or a pet project of a new leader who is here today but gone tomorrow. One local government which has sustained a successful engagement initiative over time formally incorporated employee engagement into its organizational values. At the University of Wisconsin, we have directly linked our engagement efforts to one of our strategic goals – “to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff.” This approach elevates engagement to be more than a “program.”
  2. Provide senior-level and enterprise-wide leadership. Virtually all analyses conclude that leadership is a critical driver of improved employee engagement. Therefore, senior leaders need to make engagement an organizational priority and also model sound engagement practices. For example, the mayor of a large U.S. city routinely reviewed engagement survey results with his department directors, “helping” them decide what actions to take to improve engagement. In the U.S. federal government, an agency CEO was dissatisfied with her organization’s ranking of number 172 in “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.” She made improvement an organizational agency priority and, six years later, her agency was ranked number one, an unprecedented ascent up the Best Places rankings.
  3. Improve communication. Communication is the glue that holds employee-engagement initiatives together, particularly in government. Public-sector organizations must communicate throughout the entire cycle of planning, conducting, and acting on engagement surveys. Moreover, agencies have learned through engagement surveys that they need to improve communication in general, to give employees the information they need to perform well. This means not just announcing decisions but explaining their rationales. In many cases, agency heads and other senior leaders are reaching out directly to their workforces, using technology when employees are geographically dispersed.
  4. Manage employee performance effectively. To be fully engaged, employees need to understand what their roles, responsibilities, and expectations are; receive consistent feedback on their performance; and be encouraged and supported as they strive to develop their capabilities. The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board compared the highest-engagement federal agencies to the lowest-engagement agencies, and found that the single factor that most differentiated the high-engagement agencies was effective performance management. According to the MSPB, “Every positive performance-management practice we reviewed is employed more widely in high-engagement agencies than in low-engagement agencies.” Specifically, managers should:
    • Ensure that employees understand their work expectations and see the link between their jobs and the organization’s mission;
    • Meet regularly with staff members;
    • Provide feedback on performance, as well as opportunities to grow and develop (and even fail as a way to learn); and
    • Hold employees accountable for performance, including dealing with poor performers.
  5. Develop engagement-related leadership competencies. The ability to create and sustain high-engagement workforces is a skill, or competency, that should be integrated into processes to hire, onboard, train, advance, and even compensate leaders, managers and supervisors. Research shows that when managers and supervisors are engaged, the employees who report to them are far more likely to also be engaged. One study showed that up to 70 percent of the variability in employee engagement can be attributed to the engagement level of the unit manager. Examples of employee-engagement-related competencies include:
    • Provides strong and effective leadership to ensure the work unit is high-performing and achieves its mission;
    • Creates a positive climate by setting clear strategy, goals and expectations; honoring core values; providing regular feedback and support; and recognizing and rewarding performance;
    • Creates an inclusive work environment;
    • Supports and assists employees in learning and development; and
    • Provides leadership and participates in creating and supporting hiring, staffing and onboarding processes that contribute to employee engagement and inclusion.
  6. Ensure that employees believe that their opinions count. Agencies that strive to listen to their employees have designed ways to solicit opinions and innovative ideas – and then adopt the best ones. One modern spin on the traditional “suggestion box” is using social media and crowdsourcing approaches to encourage employees to identify ways to improve operations. This is followed by a virtual agency-wide conversation about the ideas, vetting and improving on them. This can be a particularly effective way to engage younger employees, who see these kinds of interactions as a way of life. One U.S. government federal agency encourages its employees to electronically vote on employee ideas. Any idea that receives at least 150 votes is forwarded to senior leadership for possible implementation.
  7. Create a more a positive work environment. Public sector agencies that have measured employee engagement and then acted on the results have also taken specific steps to improve the work environment. This includes expanding the use of flexible work arrangements (e.g., compressed work weeks, flextime, part-time work, job sharing and telework) which, in many organizations, are underutilized approaches to improve engagement – and productivity. In the U.S. federal government, the annual employee survey shows that employees who are able to use flexible working arrangements are more engaged than employees who aren’t.Forward-thinking government agencies also realize that employee engagement and well-being are linked, and that both drive fewer health-related absences and improved productivity and performance.
  8. Improve new employee onboarding. In life, and in work, we only get one chance to make a first impression. Most of us have stories of reporting for a new job when we were ready for the job, but the job wasn’t ready for us. A systematic and comprehensive onboarding program, that begins when a new employee accepts the job offer and continues through the new hire’s first year, can dramatically improve engagement, time-to-productivity and retention. New employee orientation is part of onboarding, but the process goes beyond orientation to fully meet the needs of new hires.
  9. Enhance employee prospects for career growth. An important driver of engagement is providing employees with opportunities to develop and grow. Younger employees, for example, consider career growth opportunities to be paramount. They’ll stay as long as they’re developing their competencies. When they no longer believe they are enhancing their skills, they are likely to leave. While formal training is an important aspect of employee development, there are also other options. A New Zealand government agency, for example, developed an employee development program that encouraged and enabled its employees to volunteer for assignments in different work groups, jobs, regions, or even (temporarily) outside organizations. This program reduced recruiting costs, decreased turnover, and increased employee satisfaction with learning and development opportunities.
  10. Recognize employee contributions. Recognition – including linking it to performance – is a key to employee engagement. While this linkage is important in all organizations, it is particularly important in government. With today’s difficult public sector budgets, government agencies need to find non-financial ways to recognize outstanding performance. Sometimes this just means a smile and thank you for a job well done. A major U.S. hospital provided its managers with an employee recognition toolkit that includes suggestions on how to thank employees “without spending a dime.” These suggestions included:
    • Mailing a hand-written note to an employee’s home
    • Recognizing an employee at a staff meeting;
    • Putting a thank you on the department bulletin board.
    • Complimenting an employee within earshot of others, so the word spreads;
    • Surprising an employee with a post-it note of thanks;
    • Sending a department-wide email praising an individual employee or team;
    • Starting every meeting by recognizing an employee and/or asking employees to recognize each other; and
    • Pulling an employee aside to ask for his/her opinion.

Improving employee engagement can be a powerful tool to improve individual and organizational performance – if it’s done strategically and authentically. But there is no magic bullet to improve engagement. What’s needed is a systematic assessment of employee engagement levels (ideally through a survey), a carefully constructed approach to dealing with the issues the data reveal, and then a strategy to build engagement over time. Improving engagement – and therefore performance – is a marathon and not a sprint.

The above is part of the article “Improving Employee Engagement: A Public Sector Leadership Imperative” written by Bob Lavigna and was first published by Public Sector Digest.

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