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Are You Ready to Improve Employee Engagement?

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

By Robert Lavigna
May 12, 2017

In this column and elsewhere, I’ve argued that improving the level of employee engagement can be a key way for government organizations to deliver consistently high quality service. The research, including from my own organization, has consistently revealed this link between engagement and performance.

approvalWhen I speak about why it’s important to focus on employee engagement, someone almost always asks me to tell them what they can do immediately to improve engagement in their organization. And I always respond by saying I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to improving engagement. After all, there are more than 90,000 government jurisdictions just in the U.S., and I don’t think that any single approach, or even a standard set of approaches, will work in each of these places. The solutions need to fit the issues – and this requires organization specific data.

Even within individual jurisdictions there can be great variability in levels and drivers of engagement. For example, in a city we’re working with, the individual departments each have different levels of engagement. The factors that influence engagement also differ across these departments.

I’ve also argued that regular employee surveys can be the best way to assess engagement and thereby establish a baseline. This doesn’t mean surveys are the only way to collect data on how employees feel about their work and their organization. Other approaches such a one-on-one discussions, employee focus groups and exit interviews can also help government agencies take the temperatures of their workforces, and then use the results to decide how to improve engagement.

Regardless of approach, government organizations shouldn‘t rush into an engagement initiative without thinking about whether they are truly ready. But how does a jurisdiction or agency know if it’s ready? Below are some questions designed to help answer this question. 

  1.  Has the organization explicitly identified a high level of employee engagement as a strategic goal, priority or value? Successful engagement efforts are not exclusively the province of the human resources department. Creating a culture of engagement means focusing on engagement as a strategic priority. The state of Michigan, for example, has declared it “… aims to be the nation’s leader in government customer service, employee engagement, fiscal responsibility and innovation” (my emphasis). That’s my idea of a long term commitment.
  2.  Is there an executive champion? This can be just as critical as linking engagement efforts to strategy. Does the organization’s chief executive actively support the initiative and is she/he willing to publicly commit not only to the survey but also to action based on the survey results? When we do kick-off conferences for engagement surveys, we want the chief executive to be there and make a commitment to conducting the survey and taking action on the results. A strong statement like this can go a long professional growthway toward driving a high response rate – as well as action based on the survey results.
  3. How will the organization measure the level of engagement (e.g., through an employee survey)? We can’t manage what we don’t measure. Guessing about the level of engagement (“our employees seem happy”) is a recipe for failing to truly understand what employees are thinking and feeling about the organization’s workplace and culture. It’s hard to prescribe a solution without real data on what the conditions are.
  4.  How and when will survey results be shared with employees? Conducting a survey creates an expectation by employees that the organization will report the results in a timely fashion. I was recently asked to work with a city that conducted an engagement survey last summer but had not yet taken any action, including sharing the results with its employees. Now, months later, city leaders wanted help figuring out what to do with the results. A difficult situation.
  5.  What are the plans, systems and processes to act on the survey data? Ideally, this thinking should occur before a survey is launched. Waiting until results are reported to decide how to act just delays action. I don’t mean deciding beforehand what to do – that will be driven by what employees report in the survey. However, the organization should decide beforehand how it will take action. This could mean creating employee committees, conducting focus groups, preparing action plans, creating accountability for action, etc.
  6.  Is there a plan to conduct surveys on a regular basis? If improving employee engagement is indeed a strategic priority for the organization, it needs to decide how often, and when, to conduct follow-up surveys. This is the best way to see if the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction. Planning like this also sends a message to employees that the agency or jurisdiction is committed to a long-term engagement strategy. And it creates accountability for action.

Deciding to focus on measuring and improving engagement is a strategic decision that should be made after thoughtfully considering goals, process and consequences. Organizations that survey their employees and then fail to take action are worse off than if they had not surveyed. No organization wants to find itself in that position.


Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and VP-research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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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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