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The Key to Government Employee Engagement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
March 3, 2015

Brantley - skills-knowledge-abilitesAccording to the latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) results, federal government employee morale is at its lowest point since the survey was initiated in 2003. “The government-wide employee engagement score is 57 out of 100, compared with the private sector’s score of 72 out of 100,” notes The Washington Post in the Dec. 9, 2014, story, “Federal workers’ morale is at lowest point in years.” In every measure of workplace satisfaction, federal employees ranked significantly lower than their private sector counterparts. The one exception: Federal workers are more likely to enjoy their jobs.

Given the low morale and low engagement, it is odd that Federal workers state that they enjoy their jobs. In fact, 96 percent of employees are willing to put in extra effort to accomplish their work according to the 2014 EVS. This is despite a majority that do not believe that they are paid fairly and that they receive sufficient recognition for their work. Clearly, there is an intrinsic motivator behind why federal workers enjoy their jobs. Understanding and enhancing this intrinsic motivator may have a positive spillover effect on the other aspects of employee engagement.

Learning and development is the key intrinsic motivator to engagement

John Wiley and Sons, a book publishing company since 1807, created a program to develop employee skills that improved employee engagement by 90 percent. Ty Hall explains in his Feb. 12, 2015 blog posting:

Developing employee skills is an essential part of increasing employee engagement. If an employee’s desire to advance in their career is not met, they will start looking for employment elsewhere. On the other hand, when a focus is put on developing employee skills, the organization as a whole develops and grows.

Learning and development in the federal government are trending downward

To test my assertion that learning and development are the intrinsic motivators for why federal workers like their jobs, I examined the questions on the EVS that correspond to the employee’s personal development and learning. The complete list of EVS questions that I examined are 1, 2, 3, 8, 11, 18, 26, 27 and 68. Every question showed a downward trend from 2011 to 2014 (except for two questions that trended downward and then stayed flat from 2013 to 2014). Therefore, my assertion that learning and development are why federal employees enjoyed their job is not because of the learning and development opportunities.

Even so, this cursory examination of learning and development EVS scores does point to another factor for the low morale and low engagement among federal workers. How much of a factor depends on further analysis. But given the Wiley case mentioned above and research from the Association for Talent Development (formerly the American Society for Training and Development), I argue that it is significant factor – if not the most significant factor.

Attracting millennials (and all other generations) through increased learning and development

In her 2006 book, Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, Jennifer Deal studied the generations from the Silent Generation (1925 to 1945) to the Late Xers (1977 to 1986). She found that all the generations had 10 attitudes in common, including “everyone wants to learn more than just about anything else” and “almost everyone wants a coach.”

Although Millennials were not included in this research, it is safe to argue that they also would agree with a desire for development. “Millennial employees love training and development — and it’s one of the top things they seek from their employers,” writes Millennial Workplace Expert, Lindsey Pollack, in her Jan. 30, 2015, blog posting, “How Training and Development Opportunities Boost Millennials’ Employee Satisfaction.”

Why the federal government needs to focus on learning and development to increase employee engagement

Senior federal leaders are tasked with improving employee morale and engagement in the workforce. Based on the arguments given above, significantly increasing opportunities for learning and development would:

1)       Appeal to all the generations in the new multi-generational federal workplace.

2)       Would greatly increase morale and engagement.

3)       Improve customer service due to better-trained and better-motivated employees.

4)       Improve government organizations as a whole.

Robust learning and development programs would also help make the federal government the employer of choice as students start to learn about the opportunities for personal growth and development in government service.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park), George Mason University and the University of Louisville. He is also a federal government employee with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at  http://about.me/bbrantley.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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