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Improving the Federal Workforce Through Increased Employee Engagement

This is not an easy time to be a public servant. Heated budget battles and rhetoric about the size, function, scope and effectiveness of the public sector have generated criticism not just of government, but also of the people who deliver government services.

It is ironic is that while government is being criticized by the media, elected officials and others, the public continues to ask government to solve our nation’s toughest problems: fixing the economy, putting people back to work, supporting a war that has stubbornly persisted for more than a decade, protecting the public, eliminating poverty, improving the education system, providing affordable health care and so on.

This paradox—attacking public servants while at the same time expecting them to solve problems no other sector can handle—places federal government leaders and managers squarely in the crosshairs. They must find ways to maintain or improve performance despite harsh criticism and shrinking resources.

One proven way to meet this challenge is to improve the level of employee engagement. After all, the primary resource we have in government is talent. If our people perform well, government performs well.

The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) defines employee engagement as a heightened employee connection to work, the organization, the mission or coworkers. Engaged employees believe that their organizations value them, and in return, engaged employees are more likely to expend “discretionary effort” to deliver performance.

There is compelling evidence for why federal managers should care about employee engagement. The Gallup organization, best known for its public-opinion polling, has also systematically studied employee engagement. Gallup’s research reveals that high- engagement organizations outperform low-engagement organizations in critical areas including productivity, customer satisfaction and retention. High-engagement organizations are almost 20 percent more productive than their low- engagement counterparts.

In the federal government, an MSPB study of a survey of 37,000 federal government employees revealed that higher levels of employee engagement correlated with:

  • Higher rates of success achieving strategic goals,
  • Better employee retention,
  • Less sick leave and lost time due to work-related injury or illness, and
  • Fewer equal employment opportunity complaints.

The Partnership for Public Service‘s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” annual agency rankings hold leaders accountable for the workplace health of their organizations, offer a roadmap for improvement and give job seekers insights on how federal employees view their agencies.

But how do we improve engagement in the complicated and highly visible world of the federal government? I suggest an employee engagement process model with five steps that can produce powerful results in the form of improved employee and organizational performance. The linchpin of the model is surveying employees to determine their level of engagement. An employee survey is the most direct, and therefore most actionable, way to assess the level of employee engagement and also identify what needs to be done to improve it. The five steps:

  1. Plan the engagement survey
  2. Conduct the survey
  3. Analyze and report the results
  4. Take action
  5. Sustain engagement

Fortunately for federal agencies, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) of all federal employees. The Partnership and OPM then analyze the results and report them, overall and for individual agencies. This means federal agencies are several steps ahead in the employee engagement improvement process.

After receiving the FEVS and “Best Places” results, however, federal agencies must move to steps 4-5 of the model—taking action on the results and sustaining engagement. And agencies must also continually communicate throughout the improvement process.


Taking Action

Real change requires taking action on the engagement survey data. To do this, many agencies form action teams that analyze the survey data, collect additional data (often through focus groups), identify priorities for change, develop recommendations in response to the survey data, generate leadership support for the recommendations and then put together detailed action plans to implement recommendations.


Sustaining Engagement

Sustaining engagement means regularly measuring it through surveys. This makes the entire organization—including leaders, managers and supervisors—accountable. Sustaining engagement also requires continued support by leaders, managers and supervisors, even when top leadership in federal agencies changes. Another key to sustained engagement is linking improved engagement levels to agency results and outcomes.



Across the entire model, communication should be a unifying force in the journey to improved employee engagement. Agencies must communicate frequently and candidly, before, during and after the survey process, including during action planning and implementation.

The engagement process model may seem simple, but when applied diligently, can produce powerful results. The steps are intentionally broad to allow an agency to adapt the model to its mission, values, strategy, culture and capabilities.

Agencies committed to improving engagement might be eager to start with what appear to be the solutions to improving engagement. It can be seductive to immediately put in place strategies like improving communication, involving employees more in decision-making, offering more employee development opportunities and so on. While these might be good solutions, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving engagement. Even across the same agency, different units may have different engagement strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing survey results is the diagnosis that should precede the treatment.


Adapted from Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance, published by AMACOM.


Author: Robert Lavinga is Assistant Vice Chancellor-HR for the University of Wisconsin. He has also served as VP for the Partnership for Public Service and administrator of the state of Wisconsin merit system. Bob began his career with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He is a past president of the International Public Management Association for HR and the ASPA Section on Personnel. His awards include selection as a “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine.


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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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