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Political Transitions—A Unique Opportunity to Focus on Employee Engagement

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

By Robert Lavigna
January 13, 2017

The transition occurring in the federal government as the new administration takes office is riveting the nation. Regardless of how we feel about the election, we’re all anxious to see what the new President and his appointees have in store for the nation.

Less visible, but nonetheless important, are the leadership transitions also taking place in statehouses, county seats and city halls across the nation. In some respects, these transitions will have more of a direct, day-to-day impact on citizens than what goes on in Washington.

The January 8, 2017 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, for example, included a series of articles on the 2017 session of the Georgia legislature. In one column, an editor stated, “We’ve all been transfixed by what’s happening in Washington, but the choices made by state lawmakers here have a more direct impact on our lives …the quality of schools, the availability of health care, the roads we drive on and much more.”

The same goes for local government. ap-critical-thinking

Newly elected and appointed leaders will bring new policies to the nation, and to states and local communities. The success of these policies, however, will depend on the skill, commitment and performance of millions of career public servants.

I once heard Max Stier, CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service (and my former boss) say in government we spend about 80 percent of our time developing policies and only 20 percent of our time implementing them. In the private sector, he said, it’s the reverse—20 percent developing policies and 80 percent implementing them.

I’m not sure the numbers are exactly right but I think the sentiment is. We can have the best ideas, policies and even technology in government but, if we don’t have the talent to execute, we can’t succeed. Many of us, for example, have survived transitions to new computer systems where most of the resources were devoted to the technology but not the people who would manage and run the new technology. The result has often been frustration and even chaos.

In other words, new government leaders, including those in the White House, need to pay attention to their workforces. These new leaders have a unique opportunity to do this, by focusing on employee engagement.

Last year I participated in a briefing on public sector workforce issues for two mayoral candidates in a large U.S. city. During my remarks, I emphasized the new mayor would have a unique opportunity to take the temperature of the city workforce, through a comprehensive employee engagement survey. The newly elected mayor would not have to own the workforce problems or issues, but could own the solutions—by acting on the survey results. This opportunity, with a minimum of political risk, would only occur once.

I was pleased to learn the mayor has decided to survey city employees and is committed to acting on the results.

In the federal government, the new administration has a wealth of data on the health of the federal workforce, including from the Office of Personnel Management Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the Partnership’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings. This data can be a roadmap for the new administration to understand how to improve engagement. Research study after research study has shown improving employee engagement will improve organizational performance.

State and local governments do not have a central source of engagement data so they must conduct their own surveys. This is not difficult, however, given the availability of many proven and valid engagement surveys. This challenge isn’t the logistics of conducting the survey. The real key is committing to acting on the results—and then following through.

One other factor argues for attention to employee engagement. This is the consistent finding that leadership is a key driver of engagement. Each year of “Best Places,” for instance, leadership has been the number one driver of the rankings. Other research, including my own organization’s, has found this to be a key factor in state and local government too.

The very act of paying attention to the workforce also sends a powerful symbolic message. Shortly after his inauguration in 1989, President George H.W. Bush met with members of the Federal Senior Executive Service and told them:

 Well, I’m honored to be with you, to work with you, you here in Washington, your colleagues in the Federal service around the nation. They’re some of the most unsung heroes in America … I am proud of you and very glad that we will be working to write this chapter together. Thank you all, and God bless you in your important work. Thank you very, very much.

Many of the career executives who were there still talk about how inspiring those words were.

Likewise, as new leaders take office across the nation this year, they can demonstrate leadership by focusing on their workforces—because public servants will make or break these new leaders’ policy agendas. This focus should include measuring and improving employee engagement.

After all, we only get one chance to make a first impression.

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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