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Supervision – A Key Driver of Employee Engagement in Local Government

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

By Robert Lavigna
October 11. 2017

My organization’s just-released report, Driving Employee Engagement, revealed an intriguing result—a bit of an anomaly, really—about what drives engagement among local government employees.

Before we get to that, though (and at the risk of burying the lead), a bit of background first. Our organization, the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, is dedicated to helping public and nonprofit sector organizations measure and improve employee engagement. This is important because decades of research have shown that improving engagement is linked to improving organizational outcomes, including in government.

In other words, employee engagement is about organizational performance.

We designed the research summarized in the report to measure the level of employee engagement in both the public and private sectors. To do this, we administered our employee engagement survey to a national sample of employees in a wide range of occupations in both sectors.Supervision

Our results revealed the percentage of fully engaged employee in the private and public sectors (44 and 38 percent, respectively). By level of government, we found engagement was highest in local government (44 percent, equal to the private sector), followed by federal (34 percent) and then, bringing up the rear, state government (29 percent).

We also structured our research to dig deeper and identify the key drivers of engagement. The factors that are most important to employees – that “drive” their engagement.

We found that the top three drivers across both the public and private sectors are, in order:

1) leadership and managing change

2) training and development

3) the work itself.

But here’s where it gets interesting — especially for local government.

In all three levels of government, we found the top driver was also leadership and managing change. In local government, however, “supervision” was the number two driver. Only local government employees identified supervision as one of their top drivers.

What do we make of this? Why is supervision more important to local government employees than to employees in the private sector and other levels of government?

We don’t have a definite answer – that will require more research. For government, however, this finding may be linked to the roles of the different levels of government. That is, city and county employees provide direct service to their residents in ways that most federal and state government employees don’t. This may make the relationship between the supervisor and front-line employee particularly important in local government.

But theories aside, the practical implications of this finding are that local government organizations need to focus on creating solid and productive supervisor-employee relationships.

Sounds good, but what does this really mean?

Our employee engagement survey, designed specifically for government, includes eight workplace dimensions (potential drivers), including supervision. For each dimension, the survey includes specific questions (statements really, which respondents rate on a 1-5 scale). We selected each dimension, and the questions within them, based on other research about what matters to employees. Our supervision dimension has 19 questions (the most of any dimension). They are:

  • My supervisor keeps me informed about the issues affecting my work
  • My supervisor helps me to understand how I contribute to my organization’s mission
  • My supervisor motivates me to be more effective in my job
  • My supervisor provides constructive feedback on my job performance
  • The feedback I receive helps me to improve my performance
  • I receive frequent feedback on my performance
  • I think that my performance is evaluated fairly
  • My supervisor recognizes when I have done my job well
  • My supervisor works effectively with people of different backgrounds
  • My supervisor has good technical skills
  • My supervisor has good management skills
  • My supervisor addresses poor performance effectively
  • Differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way
  • My supervisor treats people with respect
  • My supervisor responds constructively to workplace conflicts
  • My supervisor listens to what I have to say
  • My supervisor is open to my ideas
  • My supervisor is considerate of my life outside work
  • Overall, I have confidence in the decisions made by my supervisor

We believe these questions highlight critical behaviors supervisors should focus on and be good at. In fact, city and county government supervisors can use these questions as a kind of roadmap or blueprint for how they should interact with the people they supervise.

Moreover, local government organizations can use this list of behaviors as a basis to select, train, reward, evaluate and advance supervisors.

Being a good supervisor is hard, and many new supervisors are just not ready or prepared to lead. Too often, supervisors are selected into their positions because they are good technically or they have a lot of experience. These are important characteristics, but do not necessarily make for good supervisors.

Instead, organizations at all levels, but especially in local government, need to focus on what employees have identified as a key driver of their engagement—supervision—by helping supervisors be good leaders.

Please contact me directly for a complimentary copy of the report Driving Employee Engagement.


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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