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Measuring Employee Engagement

Understanding Employee Motivation More Important Than Ever

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

By Michael Jacobson
April 10, 2015

The times they are a-changing. If you know that Bob Dylan sung that song in 1964 and perhaps were around to hear it live, then you are defined as a Baby Boomer (born between 1946 – 1964). It is said that you are motivated by the desire to contribute to social changes and improve our community. You see public service as a way to put your principles into action. You thought that a government job was safe and secure, paid a fair wage and afforded opportunities for career advancement. Employee engagement wasn’t even a concept and “job satisfaction” might have been an emerging factor in personal fulfillment for the “me” generation.

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Flash forward to 2015. Potential new government employees are a vastly different group of people in a vastly different employment marketplace with widely different expectations and experiences than those of 1964. Whether college and graduate school educated or not, today’s employees have more choices, more mobility and fewer guarantees of lifetime employment in either the public or private sectors.

Can the public sector blunt the potential retirement brain-drain (dubbed the Silver Tsunami by Governing) and recruit top talent to public service?

Is this just a generation shift or is there something else at play in the workforce and workplace?

Can governments use engagement as a key to understanding how to retain talent and attract a new breed of public servant?

Lack of employee engagement shows itself in a variety of serious issues—such as  attendance problems, poor customer service, burnout, stress and higher employee medical costs—that  impact organizational performance. Actively engaged employees in contrast say positive things about their employer, plan to stay with the organization and recommend its products and services. Consulting firm Aon Hewitt uses the “say, stay and strive” model where employees are engaged when they:

  • Speak positively about the organization to co-workers, potential employees and customers.
  • Have an intense desire to be a member of the organization.
  • Exert extra effort and are dedicated to doing the very best job possible to contribute to the organization’s success.

Government has a huge advantage over the private sector in recruiting: mission.

Mission helps inform all three engagement dimensions. Private sector firms like Starbucks and TOMS Shoe’s spend a lot of effort making a company responsible for selling coffee or shoes more appealing to employees through expanding the purpose of their firms with an enhanced social mission of being active in the community or donating a pair of shoes for each pair sold. Government has mission, purpose and importance to spare; that is a competitive advantage.

However, government also has a significant number of well-known disadvantages: pay and rewards unrelated to performance, bureaucratic and outmoded hierarchical organizational structures, old processes and systems including human resources and technology, bad press/falling levels of trust by the public. All of which hamper opportunities for engagement as well as innovation, creativity and autonomy. If government is going to compete for top talent with Wall Street, Google, Amgen or Accenture then the very systems that arose from the progressive movement to decrease autonomy of corrupt officials needs to be retooled to address the World is Flat dynamic and globalized reality of today.

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Employee engagement surveys offer one way to (safely and legally) peer into the hearts and minds of government employees. Objective data such as absenteeism, turnover and labor grievances provide some information. Smaller organizations can do focus groups to elicit qualitative feedback. But for large, complex, often geographically disbursed organizations, the engagement survey is the standard tool.

Engagement surveys can help identify and ferret out which part of an organization’s management is sufficiently skilled, whether employees have the right tools to do the job and if employees feel they have the work environment that supports autonomy, mastery and the ability to make a difference. These issues transcend the generational shift underway. Every generation wants to contribute and especially those who work for government. Government employees ought to be able to feel proud of the places where they work, wear the logo and talk to their neighbors and friends about the great work their organizations are accomplishing.

The social compact of someone joining government service 30-40 years ago has shifted with eroded benefits and pensions and recurring uncertainty over adequate funding or even government shut-downs. However, government organizations of today must show they can allow employees to grow in their careers, support environments that promote innovation and prevent bureaucratic rules from hampering employees’ innate desires to make a difference.

The employee engagement survey is an important tool in understanding organizational strengths and weaknesses and allows leadership to address critical organizational components that impact employees. Only then can these organizations compete with the best for the brightest with the public as the beneficiary.


Author: Michael Jacobson is the deputy director for performance and strategy for King County’s Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget. He has overseen the county’s all-employee survey since 2009. He was the 2013 winner of the ASPA Center for Accountability and Performance’s Harry Hatry Distinguished Performance Measurement and Management Practice Award.

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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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