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March 2016
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The Public Manager

Engaging Employees to Drive Improvements in the Citizen Experience

To improve customer satisfaction, try building up your employees.

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For more than a decade, improving the customer experience has been a critical competitive strategy in the private sector. Studies show it drives satisfaction and loyalty. But it's not an easy task, and it remains a challenge for many organizations.

It has become increasingly clear that citizens and businesses also view public sector agencies as providers of services, and their expectations for their interactions as customers of those agencies are on the rise. Although a previous American Customer Satisfaction Index report found that citizen satisfaction with their government agency experience has trailed their satisfaction with the private sector, progress is being made. The 2015 Federal Employment Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) found that 65 percent of federal managers believe that their organization goes above and beyond to deliver a customer experience tailored to users' unique needs, and 67 percent say their organization's service is on par with that of the private sector.

Delivering excellent customer experiences is no doubt complicated, perhaps even more so within the constraints and complexities of the public sector. Progress toward the White House's cross-agency priority goal of delivering "a world-class customer service experience for citizens and businesses" has been slow to develop. However, the action plan for 2016-2017 aims to improve customer interactions, develop standards and tools, increase feedback, and focus on the front line.

The Importance of Employee Engagement

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For customer-facing governmental programs, there may be no greater driver of customer satisfaction than the engagement of the frontline employees they encounter. According to FEVS, employee engagement is defined as an employee's sense of purpose, manifest in the level of dedication, persistence, and effort that he or she puts into the work and into an overall commitment to an agency and its mission. Employee engagement drives departmental performance and is closely tied to mission success within the federal government, translating into better customer service for citizens.

Unfortunately, high levels of engagement across public and private sectors are often the exception, as was underscored when Dale Carnegie teamed with MSW Research to study employee engagement. A national survey of a representative sample of 1,500 employees revealed 26 percent to be disengaged and almost half (45 percent) only partially engaged. Government and military had the lowest percentage of fully engaged employees of any industry in the research—just 18 percent.

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Factors Influencing Employee Engagement

The MSW research also revealed the most important factors affecting employee engagement. Naturally, employees want to be treated with respect. They want to know the organization cares about how they feel. They value clearly designed job roles and well-communicated expectations. In accord with these factors, three primary engagement indicators stood out:

  • relationship with immediate supervisor
  • belief in senior leadership
  • pride in working for the organization.

A lack of sustained, strong, supporting relationships with supervisors and managers can be a significant barrier to high levels of engagement. In the research, 80 percent of employees who were dissatisfied with their direct manager were also disengaged. Because a big part of relationship health involves communication, it's no surprise that communication inconsistencies between leaders and team members can wreak havoc. Conversely, 73 percent of respondents reported being satisfied with their immediate supervisor when they received open and honest communication.
Belief in senior leadership is the second critical factor. For the public sector, regular changes in leadership, leadership initiatives, and the rotation of elected and appointed officials can complicate the matter. Of employees who lack confidence in senior leadership, 70 percent are not fully engaged. In the midst of turnover, the ability of senior leadership to accept employee input, lead the agency in the right direction, and openly communicate the state of the organization are vital to driving engagement.

The last factor linked closely to engagement levels is the pride employees feel in working for their organization. The engagement survey found that 54 percent of those who are proud of their organization's contribution to society are fully engaged. This represents a special opportunity for the public sector whose employees are often attracted to their careers by a desire to serve the public good. 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.

With the potential for positive impact on both government employees and the public they serve, improving the customer experience is clearly a goal worth pursuing.

About the Author

Chris McCloskey is head of Government Solutions for Dale Carnegie Training. 

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