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Getting the Message Out

Getting the Message Out

In this era of grand agency plans and performance measures, it's sometimes difficult to get employees interested, let alone involved, in headquarters' master strategies.

At the Social Security Administration, for example, officials were bemused to discover that although they gave all 1,200 of their field offices a copy of the agency's 73-page strategic plan, fewer than 5 percent of SSA's 63,000 employees knew its SSA mission statement and hardly anyone seemed to have read the plan.

This came as no surprise to Joan Wainwright, SSA's Associate Commissioner for Communications. So her office boiled down the message to one simple sentence: "Get the right check to the right person in the right amount at the right time." Subsequent employee surveys show nearly everyone has mastered that mission statement, Wainwright says.

Wainwright shared her recipe for getting out the message at a conference on strategic planning for government in Washington on Nov. 19, sponsored by the International Quality and Productivity Center.

The average SSA staffer, Wainwright says, is 44 years old, makes $37,809, and has 18 years of government service. Imagine what such an employee must feel like, Wainwright says, to be furloughed and called unessential, or to fear job loss due to downsizing.

Wainwright decided the best way for SSA to win back employees' trust was to ask employees what they wanted to hear. They said give us less irrelevant information, tell us not just what you've decided, but why, and do it via e-mail. Thus was born a monthly electronic newsletter, a project to produce 15-minute videos on the state of SSA, employee town hall meetings with executives and training for managers in how to give up the power of controlling information and communicate with employees.

Each month, Wainwright's staff of six--down from 18 in recent years--calls 25 employees selected at random to find out how communications are going. What have they learned? Trust employees; treat them like adults; find out what they need and want to know and reach them in a way that's best for them.

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