engaged federal employeesImproving customer experience is a critical competitive strategy for the private sector, and numerous studies show that it drives satisfaction and loyalty. The same holds true for the public sector, but delivering outstanding customer service remains a challenge for many agencies. In fact, citizen satisfaction with government services decreased for the third consecutive year, according to the most recent data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The ACSI Federal Government Report 2015 found that satisfaction with federal services declined 0.8 percent to an ACSI score of 63.9 on a 0 to 100 scale. 

How can agencies turn around these numbers? According to Chris McCloskey, head of government solutions for Dale Carnegie Training, employee engagement may be the key. “For customer-facing governmental programs, there may be no greater driver of customer satisfaction than the engagement of the frontline employees they encounter,” writes McCloskey in her March 2016 Public Manager article, “Engaging Employees to Drive Improvements in the Citizen Experience.” 

Indeed, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) asserts that employee engagement drives agency performance and is closely tied to mission success within the federal government. It follows logic that high performance will translate into better customer service for citizens. 

Government for the People, a recent report on federal customer service from the Partnership for Public Service (PPS), supports this idea, stating that “agencies should view increasing employee engagement and commitment as a key strategy for improving the customer experience.” PPS reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes this important link. Tom Allin, chief veterans experience officer for the department, tells PPS that he learned from his time in the private sector that great customer service companies often focus on their employees even more than they focus on their customers. “In every great service company, employees are No. 1,” says Allin. 

Unfortunately, the 2015 FEVS finds that employee engagement is less than stellar in many agencies. To dig deeper into this issue, Dale Carnegie teamed with MSW Research to study the essential elements of employee engagement. Their national survey of 1,500 employees from the public and private sectors finds that 26 percent of respondents were disengaged and almost half (45 percent) were only partially engaged. Government and the military had the lowest percentage of fully engaged employees of any industry in the research—just 18 percent. 

The MSW Research study reveals two important factors that can affect employee engagement: employees’ relationships with their immediate supervisors and their belief in senior leadership. Tracy Haugen and Jodi Simco of Deloitte Consulting’s federal human capital practice concur. They explain in the NextGov article “Is Your Agency Trying to Improve Customer Service?that when government employees feel “leadership is oblivious to their—and customers'—needs, employee engagement can deteriorate.” McCloskey adds that for the public sector, regular changes in leadership, leadership initiatives, and the rotation of elected and appointed officials can complicate the matter. 

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Pride in working for the organization is another key element of employee engagement, according to MSW Research. This can be the sweet spot for the federal workforce, because government employees are often attracted to their careers by a desire to serve the public good. “People who join the federal workforce often do so with a strong sense of mission,” write Haugen and Simco. “Across the government, motivated employees pursue their passion to serve.” 

No doubt there is a link between employee engagement and customer service. “Federal agency and department leaders seeking to improve the customer experience can benefit from understanding certain indicators of potential employee disengagement, considerations for improving the employee experience, and potential benefits of taking action,” advise Haugen and Simco.

For some, this course of study likely raises the chicken-or-egg question: Do agencies with high levels of employee engagement deliver great customer service, or do agencies that create loyal customers through excellent service also create workforces who are highly engaged? Perhaps the answer doesn’t really matter. As statisticians like to remind us, correlation is not causation. Instead, it’s probably smart to assume the two factors continuously feed into each other—and agencies should consistently work on improving both.

“As improvements in customer experience are achieved, public perceptions of governmental agencies will tend to be positively influenced, further bolstering engagement as employees enjoy greater pride in their own organizations,” writes McCloskey.