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Changing the Lives of Public Housing Residents

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

By Bob Lavigna
April 8, 2021

The motto of the Sacramento Housing and Rehabilitation Agency, “Changing lives,” reflects the Agency’s commitment to the 12,000 families that reside in the housing units the Agency operates across Sacramento County, California. To achieve the goal of changing lives, SHRA works hard to ensure that its employees see how their work connects to the Agency’s mission.

The result is a highly engaged workforce.

In August 2020, SHRA asked the CPS HR Consulting Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement to conduct an employee engagement survey. About 78% of agency employees responded, and the survey results were very positive—82% of SHRA respondents were fully or somewhat engaged, and only 18% were not engaged.

As the table below shows, the percentage of SHRA fully engaged employees substantially exceeds the Institute’s national benchmarks, and the Agency’s not-engaged percentage is below all benchmarks.

Employee Engagement Survey Results (percent)

 Fully engagedSomewhat engagedNot engaged
SHRA473518
Government (federal, state and local combined)334225
Local government324127
Private sector363925

*Benchmarks based on the Institute’s national survey of a representative sample of employees in each workforce category.

The SHRA results are notable not just because of the high scores but also because the survey was conducted several months after the agency shifted 75% of its employees to working remotely. Despite this profound change in how and where SHRA employees were working, employee engagement was high.

What drives SHRA employee engagement?

The Institute’s statistical analysis of survey responses revealed that leadership and mission are key drivers of SHRA employee engagement. This includes a high score on the question, “I feel I can make a difference working here,” (88% of employees agreed). Other high-scoring questions were:

  • “I know how my work supports my organization’s mission.”
  • “My organization’s mission is important to me.”
  • “I feel I personally contribute to the organization’s mission.”
  • “I like the kind of work that I do.”

SHRA employees are clearly motivated by the Agency’s mission, as well as their contributions and connection to that mission. The Agency’s theme, “Changing Lives,” reflects this mission.

And SHRA continually emphasizes mission. According to Director of HR Tracy Knighton, “We talk about this all the time,” including during new employee onboarding.

The agency also aggressively communicates to employees, including about the mission. CEO La Shelle Dozier works hard to connect with all employees in an informal and approachable way. She uses multiple communication strategies, including visits to SHRA housing sites where she speaks with residents as well as employees. She and other SHRA leaders continually remind employees that they are important contributors to an organization dedicated to serving the Sacramento community.  

Changing the lives of residents

SHRA also strengthens the employee connection to mission by hiring residents of the public housing units the agency operates. SHRA has made the hiring process more flexible to allow residents to successfully compete for agency jobs. SHRA hires them as temporary employees and then, if they are successful after six months, moves them into permanent positions.

As residents of SHRA properties, these employees uniquely understand the Agency’s mission—“They live it.”

This hiring strategy has worked. Recently, Sacramento low-income residents have accounted for 75% of new SHRA hires. That’s one very practical and tangible way the Agency changes lives.

And to further nurture the employee connection to the SHRA mission, SHRA is producing, “Success stories,” about accomplishments. The first of these features four residents who have been hired by the agency. These very moving vignettes are not only good public relations but also show SHRA employees they are making a difference.

SHRA has also made a strong commitment to employee training and development, despite COVID-19. During the pandemic, employees have completed more than 2,000 courses. These range from stress management, supervision and workplace safety to construction and project management.

The agency also plans to conduct a follow-up employee engagement survey to see if engagement continues to be high.

Takeaways

  • Engagement needs to be measured. It’s important to survey employees to measure and understand how engaged the workforce is, what the most significant influences on engagement are—and then base actions on these drivers. Anything less is just guesswork.
  • Mission matters. Often in government, a key influence on employee engagement is the organization’s mission. That’s why it’s important for leaders to help employees have a clear line of sight between their work and the organization’s mission and outcomes.
  • It takes a long-term commitment. Building and maintaining a high-engagement organization is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires a long-term commitment to give employees voice, and then take action to respond to the employee feedback.

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR consulting, an independent government agency. The institute was created to help government organizations measure and improve engagement. His previous positions include assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service and administrator of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. He can be reached at [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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