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The Business Case for Engagement

Monday, August 22, 2016
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The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) defines employee engagement as a heightened employee connection to work, the organization, the mission, or co-workers. Engaged employees believe that their organizations value them and, in return, engaged employees are more likely to expend "discretionary effort" to deliver performance. 

As an aside, let's acknowledge that employee satisfaction and engagement are not the same concepts. I think of satisfaction as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for employee engagement. However, paying attention to either employee satisfaction or engagement, or both, provides a much-needed focus on improving the federal workplace—and the federal workforce. 

There is compelling evidence for why public sector managers should care about employee satisfaction and engagement. Gallup, known for its public opinion polling, also has systematically studied employee engagement and has found that high-engagement organizations outperform low-engagement organizations in critical areas including productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee retention. For example, according to Gallup, high-engagement organizations are 22 percent more productive than their low-engagement counterparts. 

In the federal government, an MSPB study of federal employees revealed that higher levels of employee engagement correlated with: 

  • more success achieving strategic goals
  • better employee retention
  • less sick leave and lost time due to work-related injury or illness
  • fewer equal employment opportunity complaints. 

Research jointly conducted by Governing magazine, the payroll firm ADP, and the International Public Management Association for Human Resources revealed that engaged public-sector employees are: 

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  • twice as likely to stay in their current jobs
  • two and a half times more likely to feel they can make a difference
  • two and a half times more likely to recommend their workplaces to others
  • three times as likely to report being very satisfied in their jobs. 

Study after study has shown that organizations with highly engaged workforces outperform low-engagement organizations, in both the public and private sectors.
However, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to improving satisfaction and engagement in government. Instead, each jurisdiction or agency needs to assess its own level of employee satisfaction and engagement, analyze the results to determine what areas to focus on, and then take action in those areas. 

In other words, agencies shouldn't decide on the prescription before diagnosing the condition. Over the long term, sustaining improvement means periodically re-surveying to see if the needle of engagement is moving in the right direction.

While many state and local government agencies must develop and administer their own surveys, federal agencies have a head start by looking to OPM's annual FEVS and the Partnership for Public Service's use of the FEVS results to rate federal agencies and subcomponents in the Best Places rankings. 

The real challenge for federal agencies is to analyze the survey data and figure out how to act on the results. In some cases, these actions should be self-evident, but the partnership offers training and resources to help agencies analyze their FEVS and Best Places results, figure out what actions to take, and then act. 

Analyzing the survey results and determining how to proceed are critical steps because there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to improving satisfaction and engagement. Each agency and subcomponent must analyze its own data and take action based not only on the survey results, but also on the agency's mission, values, strategy, environment, and culture. 

For a deeper dive into this topic, join me September 7 at the Government Workforce Conference

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).  
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