ATD Blog

Resolve in 2018 to Measure and Improve Federal Employee Engagement

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Each year at this time, millions of Americans welcome the New Year by deciding to try to improve themselves. These resolutions—lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, save more money, spend more time with the family—are well-intentioned. Despite these good intentions, however, we (I’m as guilty as anyone) regularly fail to follow through. According to one estimate, 80 percent of these resolutions will be forgotten by February.

One reason for this high failure rate may be that we don’t figure out how we are going to make our resolutions reality. What are our specific goals and plans to achieve them?

Even with the dismal success rate of our personal resolutions, I propose that public sector organizations should also consider making them—but with specific plans to make them become real.

Government jurisdictions and agencies across the U.S., and around the world, are under pressure to maintain and improve performance, while also doing more with less. This pressure is not likely to subside in 2018. In fact, given the current political climate, this pressure is likely to be even more intense.

One proven response to this challenge is to improve the engagement of our employees. After all, the primary resource we have in government is talent. If our people are engaged and therefore perform well, government will also perform well.

When I speak and write about engagement, I always emphasize that improving engagement is about improving performance. It’s particularly important to make this argument to senior leaders and decision-makers. Engagement isn’t just another HR thing or about making sure our employees are happy all the time (although we want our folks to be happy most of the time).


Instead, engagement is about improving the level of commitment employees have to their agency or jurisdiction so the organization can deliver consistently high-quality performance and service.

Research has clearly shown that improving employee engagement will drive higher levels of organizational performance, including in the public sector. Specifically, improving engagement in government results in:

  • success achieving strategic goals
  • customer satisfaction
  • employee retention
  • innovation
  • teamwork and collaboration
  • attendance
  • on-the-job safety.

But we can’t manage what we can’t measure. That's why it’s important to measure engagement in order to improve it.


Measuring the level of engagement means collecting data on what employees believe is working well, plus what needs attention. Ideally, this should be done through regular employee surveys supplemented by other sources of information such as pulse surveys, turnover statistics, focus groups, exit and stay interviews, performance evaluations, and so forth. These data allow the organization to take evidence-based action to improve engagement.

Without measurement and data, we’re guessing about what actions to take. Sure, so-called “best practices” might sound appealing. But just because they work in another organization doesn’t mean they will work in yours. When my organization conducts engagement surveys, we often find great variation in engagement levels, as well as what drives engagement, across government organizations and even within them. In other words, one size does not fit all.

So, as we enter 2018, our public sector organizations should make a commitment—a resolution—to measure their level of employee engagement and then take action to improve it.

About the Author

Robert "Bob" Lavigna has more than 30 years of experience leading public sector human capital management organizations, including positions with the state of Wisconsin, Partnership for Public Service, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He currently works as Assistant Vice Chancellor/Director of HR for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lavigna also is author of  Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance (Amacom 2013).  

1 Comment
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I applaud this article: improving performance through engagement. Challenges: 1) employee engagement is an inexact science at best; 2) clearly defining performance in government agencies is problematic, changing with each new administration. Let's learn from the private sector. These Forbes and Harvard Business Review articles provide insights:
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