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Focusing on Employee Engagement—Talk or Action?

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

By Robert Lavigna
July 6, 2018

Last month, I highlighted some of the results from a study jointly conducted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (CSLGE), the International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR) and the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE). The product of this collaboration is a report entitled “State and Local Government Workforce:  2018 Data and 10 Year Trends.” I’ll refer to it again this month as the CSLGE report.

To conduct this research, CSLGE polled public-sector HR leaders and professionals across the country who are members of IPMA-HR and NASPE.

As I reported last month, one poll question was, “Looking ahead, which workforce issues are important to your organization.” About 79 percent of the respondents listed “employee engagement,” while 81 percent selected engagement’s cousin, “employee morale.” Only “recruitment and retention of qualified personnel with needed skills for public service” and “competitive compensation package” (82 and 80 percent, respectively) scored higher.

So, four out of five of the HR leaders identified employee engagement as a priority.

However, when asked what HR strategies their organizations actually use, only 30 percent cited “employee satisfaction surveys.” Let’s put aside for the moment the discussion about any differences between employee satisfaction and engagement, and just focus on this CSLGE survey result. Only 30 percent said their organizations survey employees about satisfaction/engagement, even though 79 percent listed engagement as a key organizational priority.

How do we explain this apparent conflict? Let’s take a look at the other strategies the respondents reported that their organizations use to encourage employee retention and development. Below, from the report, is part of the chart listing the strategies that respondents said they use. Shown are the results for employee satisfaction surveys and the strategies that respondents ranked higher:

This is a very solid list of employee-focused initiatives; research has shown that many of these approaches can boost engagement. For example, national polling by my organization, the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, has found that employee recognition can be a key driver of engagement.

But how does an organization know which strategies are the right solutions unless it knows what the level of engagement is in its own workforce, and which factors drive its employees’ engagement?

For example, let’s say I’m the leader of an organization that wants to improve retention. Which strategies should I consider? Should we focus our attention and resources on internal or external training, new employee onboarding, leave benefits, recognition, leadership development, compensation, employee wellness, etc.? Should we aim to implement the highest-scoring approaches?

Each of these strategies can produce results. The question is which will work in my organization. And I don’t think there are too many organizations, particularly in government, that can afford to put in place multiple new strategies at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the value of this research. This is an important study. I’m only focusing on a small sliver of the report.

So, what should an organization do if it is sincerely interested in taking action to attract, develop, engage and retain talent? This is a fundamental question, especially in the public sector. As I preach whenever I can, we can’t get anything done in government unless we have talent – the right people with the right skills in the right places at the right times.

Government can have innovative ideas, thoughtful policies and cutting-edge technology. But without talent, these ideas, policies and even technology will likely fail.

But talent by itself isn’t enough – government needs talented and engaged employees who are committed to the mission of the organization. Decades of research have shown that engagement drives performance, including in government.

That’s why we at the Institute continue to argue that improving engagement is critical – but requires data.

For example, there is a book, 180 Ways to Improve Engagement, which includes terrific ideas. However, good luck figuring out what will work in your organization without understanding what makes your employees tick.

One way (and we and others think it’s the best way) is to survey employees to find out what they believe is—and isn’t—working to influence their engagement. Then take action to maintain the former and improve on the latter.

The level of engagement—and ways to improve it—will vary across organizations, and even within organizations. For example, in a large city we worked with, employee engagement survey results revealed great variability in engagement, and in the drivers of engagement, across departments. Employees in the police department, the library, public works, finance, human services, etc., have different missions, goals and workforces. As a result, the departments also have different workforce issues.

The bottom line is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to ensuring that government has a committed and high-performing workforce. According to the Census Bureau, there are almost 90,000 local governments in the U.S. alone. Most of these have multiple departments or divisions. Even across the 50 state governments, there are thousands of departments, bureaus, offices, locations, commissions, etc. Ditto for the federal government.

That’s a multitude of public sector organizations, each with its own character and culture — and workforce needs.

As the CSLGE report shows, there are many approaches that can help build a high-performing workforce. The challenge for each organization is to understand which approaches will yield the best return on its investment.

We can’t manage it unless we measure it. This applies to our workforces too. Organizations seeking to improve performance by improving employee engagement need to collect employee survey data to identify where to take action.

And then take that action.


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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