Agencies know employee engagement is a problem. Now what?

When it comes to federal employees’ passion and commitment to their work, the executives who sit on the President’s Management Council have set a stretch goal by all measures. They want to boost the employee engagement score on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to 67 percent by 2016.

But that score is moving in the wrong direction. Derived from employees’ answers to several survey questions about their work, supervisors and leaders, it hasn’t been that high since 2011. It now stands at 63 percent.

Yet there’s something more alarming in the survey, according to Justin Johnson, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, which held its annual public meeting Tuesday.

Just 38 percent of federal employees who took the survey said they thought it would make their agencies better places to work.

Advertisement

“From the President on down, people are being put on the spot about this stuff, but there’s still skepticism among the workforce,” he said.

Troubled by the decline, the council has worked with representatives of labor unions and managers’ associations to find ways to reverse it. They formed a working group earlier this year.

“This is not a top-down or bottom-up effort. It’s both,” said Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. Leaders need to show their commitment, but employees have to offer up solutions too, he said.

“It’s really sort of a circle,” he said.

Engaged employees tend to work harder and stay longer at agencies, he said. They also tend to work in safer environments and call in sick less often.

Some of the work group members have poured over the data, searching for clues to increasing survey scores. They have isolated a few survey questions, such as the one about how the survey itself will be used, that seem most indicative of change.

They have also visited NASA (77 percent), the Nuclear Regulatory Council (75 percent) and other agencies and field offices that managed to buck the trend.

While the organizations’ approaches to engagement vary widely, they share common threads about articulating their messages, inviting discussion and investing in employees’ training and leadership development.

This year, the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the survey, has broken the results down for 20,000 individual offices, making it easier to see standouts both good and bad. The findings can be dramatic. At NASA Ames Research Center, one office experienced a 20-percent boost in employee engagement, said Jeri Buchholz, NASA’s chief human capital officer. She attributes the achievement to the senior executive in charge.

“When you look at who has the power to transform the organization, it’s the front- line supervisor,” given that they hire, coach, evaluate and assign work to employees, she said. “Every single decision adds to a transformation, keeps you where you are, or in tragic situations, sets you back.”

She urged the work group to learn about the challenges facing those managers.

But while it’s easy to visit and study those at the top of the scale, it’s harder to examine why other agencies do poorly.

“It’s more sensitive and sometimes [a low survey score] is personality driven,” Johnson said. “But where they can identify it as a fair metric, agencies are starting to use it in some way, recognizing that it is a snapshot in time.”

And when that happens, it becomes apparent that the offices with low scores do the opposite of those at the top, he said.

“They aren’t consistent, or they don’t have an overt investment in frontline supervision or development,” he said. “Maybe it’s available but people aren’t aware of it.”

Through all of this, the group has learned that measurable improvement takes time, Johnson said.

“It takes like a five-year commitment to something to see not only improvement, but improvement that people feel will last,” he said, citing examples of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the FDIC, which administers its own employee survey similar to the governmentwide poll administered by OPM.

Johnson cautions agencies not to read too much into year-to-year changes on any survey.

“Gaming the system and looking at the numbers is not a goal for anyone,” he said. The secret “is finding something, committing to it, and consistently applying it so folks don’t feel like they are being whipsawed by flavor-of-the-month initiatives.”

The work group plans to release a report soon. But going forward, said Johnson, it wants to find a way to showcase agencies and offices that have improved, perhaps through an online community.

“We are not sanctioning them as silver bullets,” he said. “We want to present things that have worked for people.”

But when asked whether the efforts can lead to that 4 percent increase in employee engagement governmentwide in less than two years, Johnson said, “It’s a heavy lift. We know that.”

RELATED STORIES:

2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: Senior leaders get low marks

Employee Viewpoint Survey reveals warts and all to federal managers