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Improving Engagement Scores Is the Wrong Goal

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In December 2014, the Office of Management and Budget sent a 13-page memo to agency heads, “Strengthening Employee Engagement and Organizational Performance.” The purpose was to confirm the importance of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the index adopted as a measure of engagement. The memo requires Senior Executive Service performance plans to include “some measurable component related to action planning and/or results to improve employee engagement.”

That reinforces this goal in the President’s Management Agenda: “to unlock the talent of today’s workforce and build the workforce needed for the future.”

But something is missing. Employee engagement has become prominent because of research from the private sector linking engagement with performance. Nothing reported to date confirms the Office of Personnel Management’s Employment Engagement Index is associated with performance in federal agencies.

Everyone at this point has been exposed to the arguments for boosting engagement. Every employer of course wants employees committed to the success of the organization.

The fact is, however, that the idea is a construct which in psychology means it’s an idea that was conceived to explain something that doesn’t exist. It’s like beauty and love. That unfortunately means it cannot be measured directly. It also means “experts” are free to develop their own methods for measuring engagement – and by this point there is a long list of variations. They all involve employee surveys but their questions look at different work-related issues.

OPM’s index is a measure of “the conditions conducive to engagement, that is the engagement potential of an agency’s work environment.” (I have to say I am not certain how to interpret that phrase.) This year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey report goes on to state:

“Employee engagement is the employee’s sense of purpose. It is evident in their display of dedication, persistence, and effort in their work or overall commitment to their organization and its mission. An agency that engages its employees ensures a work environment where each employee can reach his or her potential, while contributing to the success of the agency.”

Their methodology was described in the 2014 report. It involves responses to 15 questions selected based on “a rationalization they would be representative of dimensions similar to other engagement ‘driver’ measures.” The choice of questions was confirmed with statistical factor analysis. So now we know.

Gallup is the firm that has done the most research, with analyses going back years. They have also conducted federal employee surveys and reported the results in December. Their results are very different from OPM’s. Gallup categorizes employees into one of three categories: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.

Gallup describes actively disengaged employees as “unhappy at work, but more than that, they will actually undermine the progress that their engaged co-workers make.”

Gallup’s survey results show fewer federal employees are engaged than workers in an average U.S. organization – 27 percent versus 31 percent – and that more federal employees are actively disengaged – 19 percent versus 17 percent. OPM’s index of course is silent on the number of disgruntled workers.

Gallup’s analyses show the linkage between engagement and performance – with ties to generic measures like absenteeism, turnover, customer satisfaction and worker’s compensation claims – and use that data to measure lost productivity.

For the federal government, the data show lost productivity of 11 percent. Based on the average federal salary, that translates to approximately $9,000 per employee and a total cost of $18 billion annually.

Gallup has its own version of “great places to work,” and those organizations average 65 percent engaged employees – more than double the national average. The very best exceed 70 percent. There are a number of independent studies showing employers with highly engaged workers are more successful.

There is no way to know, based on information released by OPM, how their index compares with the Gallup survey results. It’s highly doubtful that the federal engagement is actually better than leading companies.

The piece that is missing from the OPM reports is evidence that higher index results are related to better workforce performance. The statement about “dedication, persistence and effort” would be difficult to prove, but the impact of engagement should show up in the performance measures that Gallup uses. And the data relevant to those measures are available (or could be assembled) in every organization. With response data from 400,000-plus employees and all federal work locations, it should be straightforward to test how, if at all, the EEI data are linked to those measures.

Being able to compare the work management practices in those locations that score high with locations where employee morale is low would be eye-opening. It should not be a huge project to develop the database. Those analyses could be within multi-location agencies (e.g., Veterans Affairs Department hospitals) or across agencies.

A metric directly linked to employee engagement that could be used by a number of agencies is customer/client/user satisfaction. That’s a metric where government needs to improve.

The bottom line is the EEI score is not what needs to improve – it’s workforce management. The focus should be on developing action plans to improve the federal work experience.

With more effective management practices, agencies could reduce that $18 billion. A cost-benefit analysis should show that’s a solid winner. Everyone would benefit with better management practices.

(Image via iluistrator/Shutterstock.com)

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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