Skip to main content

Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

Improving Employee Engagement: A Virtuous Cycle

March 21, 2018

I think I’ve heard just about every government joke there is. Most are mean-spirited and just plain wrong. But here’s one with a little different twist;

“In government, they ask us to do more with less, and then even more with even less and – ultimately – they want us to do everything with nothing.”

Maybe this is one government joke that does contain a grain of truth?

In other words, these are tough times for government. This environment makes it hard to attract, motivate and retain talented public servants. One proven approach to this talent challenge is to improve the level of engagement among government employees.

According to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, engaged employees have a heightened connection to work, the organization, its mission and their co-workers. As a result, engaged employees go above the minimum and expend “discretionary effort” to deliver performance.

Why Engagement Matters

Decades of research have shown that employee engagement is linked to organizational performance, including in government. Engagement drives outcomes such as achieving strategic goals, delivering responsive service, stimulating innovation, retaining good employees, boosting attendance, and keeping workplaces safe.

The "engagement value cycle" below summarizes why engagement matters in government.

This virtuous cycle illustrates why improving engagement is not just a touchy-feely activity or exclusively the domain of the HR department. Instead, it’s about improving performance, service and trust in government.

Five steps to improve engagement, starting with measurement

To improve engagement, we must first measure it. This means collecting data, ideally through regular employee surveys. The five steps below are a quick guide to measuring and improving engagement.

1. Plan the survey

Decide what questions to ask, whom to survey, and when and how to administer the survey.

Just as important, planning should also include the process the organization will use to decide how to act on the survey data.

2. Conduct the survey

Organizations can develop an engagement survey internally or use an available survey, and administer the survey itself or hire a contractor. While most organizations conduct surveys online, some also provide a hard-copy option for employees who can’t, or won’t, complete it online. To maximize response rates, employees must understand that their responses will be confidential.

3. Report and analyze the results

Many surveys generate a composite score summarizing the overall level of engagement in the organization. Reporting should also include question-by-question results to identify areas of strength that should be maintained, and areas to improve. Reporting survey results at the lowest possible levels – such as work units and locations – promotes action and accountability.

Analysis can also include benchmarking with public and private sector organizations, and identifying the “drivers” of engagement (i.e., questions that statistical analysis reveals are the most important influences on employees’ engagement).

4. Take action to improve employee engagement

The organization should develop an action plan or plans (i.e., specific to individual work units) to respond to the survey results.

This doesn’t mean just focusing on low-scoring areas. Most surveys will also reveal areas employees feel good about. In other words, figure out what the organization is doing well, and keep doing it.

5. Sustain Engagement

The long-term goal should be to create a culture of employee engagement. This means addressing the issues raised in the survey, and also regularly measuring engagement. Periodic surveying makes the entire organization accountable for creating a culture of engagement.

Sustaining engagement also means analyzing the connection between improved engagement and improved organizational performance.

This employee engagement strategy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The model is broad to allow individual organizations to tailor it to their mission, values, strategy, culture, and capabilities.

There is no silver bullet to ensure that government can meet today’s talent management challenges. Instead, what’s needed is silver buckshot – an integrated and comprehensive strategy to attract and retain talent.

Measuring and improving employee engagement should be a key part of this strategy.

Robert Lavigna is Director for The Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, CPS HR Consulting; Adjunct Associate Professor, Assistant Vice Chancellor - Human Resources, University of Wisconsin. Former Vice President for Research, Partnership for Public Service; Senior Manager, CPS, Human Resource Services; Administrator of Merit Recruitment and Selection, State of Wisconsin. Formerly with the U.S. General Accounting Office.