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The Value of Organizational Health

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

By Andrew Kleine
July 27, 2021

As Baltimore’s budget director during the Great Recession era, I fought my share of battles about cutting spending. More than a few of them involved proposals that impacted the workforce: reducing headcount, charging more for health benefits and shrinking office space. I didn’t always win those battles, and while stewing about my losses I often wished I was the one calling the shots.

In 2018, I got my wish when I became Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for Montgomery County, MD. As I surveyed my new landscape, I found that the view was very different, and not just because Montgomery County doesn’t have a harbor. In the budget director seat I was responsible for the health of the balance sheet. In the CAO seat I was responsible for the health of the entire organization. To be blunt about it, what I used to see as FTE were now real human beings. And the 9,000 human beings in Montgomery County Government weren’t exactly one big happy family.

I inherited a tense relationship between labor and management, the result of assertive unions, several years of budget austerity and leadership that didn’t listen to employees. Early in my tenure, union officials forced their way past security in a county office building and vandalized a workspace to protest what they saw as oppressive management practices. This vigilantism was no way to resolve a disagreement, but it signaled loud and clear that trust was broken.

When I confront a problem, my first instinct is to gather data. In the same way that I had always obsessed over service delivery metrics, financial trends and outcome indicators, I wanted to measure and monitor the well-being of my organization, which really means the people who do the work.

The first step was to survey employees about their work lives, something the county had never done before. The survey responses showed that, by and large, our employees liked their jobs. They also revealed that every department had at least one issue—be it about performance reviews, training opportunities, promotion decisions, etc.—that had to be talked about openly and honestly. Those conversations had just begun when COVID-19 hit.

On one hand, the pandemic interrupted our trust restoration project. On the other hand, it brought the organization closer together in unexpected ways. Remote work forced us to communicate more than ever. We reached out to co-workers who were juggling work and family responsibilities (sometimes on camera). We worried about burnout and preached self-care. We did everything we could to protect our front-line employees—healthcare workers, safety officers and bus drivers—and celebrated the heroism of their public service.

The pandemic also made dashboards sexy. Previously to the eccentric delight of data geeks like me, suddenly everyone was keeping track of bar charts showing case counts, positivity rates, ICU beds and all the other gauges that informed COVID-19 policies. As CAO, the first tab I visited each morning on my COVID dashboard updated me on how many employees were quarantined and how many had returned to work.

My daily dashboard dive connected the dots for me. The pandemic had put employee well-being front and center, along with the health of county residents. Post-pandemic, we should put organizational health on the same pedestal as public health (and public safety, and all the other things that divert our attention from what’s going on “inside the house.”)

Start with the following seven factors to build your Organizational Health Dashboard (OHD):

Morale—The best way to measure morale is with an employee survey. OPM’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asks simply, “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?” Voluntary turnover rate is another key measure of morale, because no matter what the survey says, people vote with their feet. Also, turnover data is available in real-time.

Diversity—Workforce diversity can be measured with a diversity deviation index that compares it to the composition of the population served, where 1.0 represents perfect parity. Diversity should be measured for the workforce as a whole and separately for the senior ranks.

SafetyWorkplace injuries are the most obvious measure here, but Worker’s Compensation claims captures a wider universe of work-related ailments.

Wellness—Health benefit providers have detailed data on employee health; I’ve seen reports showing a breakdown of employee populations across a five-level health scale, including the number with chronic illnesses. Wellness programs track participation numbers, and some can even report on outcomes. Sick leave usage and absenteeism are additional wellness indicators.

Skills—Too many governments budget for training and just hope for the best. An alternative approach is to require employees to earn a certain number of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits or equivalent training units each year. Skills are hard to measure, but the number of employees earning a new certification is a good proxy.

Labor-Management RelationsEmployee grievances should be monitored, but a survey can cut through the politics and provide a more accurate read of how employees and their managers are getting along.

That’s 10-12 measures of organizational health that should be a regular part of senior leadership strategy sessions and departmental performance discussions. If you want your dashboard to be a tool for progress, and not just artwork, set targets for improvement on each of your OHD indicators. Governments that improve their organizational health will see their efforts pay off in higher productivity, happier customers and better results.

Author: Andrew Kleine is Senior Director—Government & Public Sector at EY-Parthenon. He is the author of City on the Line: How Baltimore Transformed Its Budget to Beat the Great Recession and Deliver Outcomes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and has served as a county chief administrative officer, city budget director, and federal CFO. His email is [email protected] and his Twitter handle is @awkleine

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One Response to The Value of Organizational Health

  1. John Kamensky Reply

    July 30, 2021 at 1:57 pm

    Hi Andrew – Nice piece! NAPA did a study on improving organizational health and performance a few years ago that may provide more details to your proposal – https://napawash.org/academy-studies/strengthening-organizational-health-and-performance-in-government

    There was follow-on work by the Senior Executives Association that resulted in a proposal earlier this year to create a learning center to help managers develop better practices that would improve their organization’s health, as well: https://cdn.ymaws.com/seniorexecs.org/resource/resmgr/press_releases/final_for_public-_management.pdf

    You’re focusing on an important topic for leaders of effective organizations. Thanks!

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