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Analysis: For How Long Can Feds ‘Do More With Less’?

As employee engagement rates decline, the cost-cutting mantra may not be helping anything.

The “do more with less” mantra is nothing new to government employees. While there is often a cry for less government, the truth is that most Americans want government that costs less, not government that does less. So government employees have now gone over two years without pay increases and had to endure numerous program cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility. While “doing more with less” may seem admirable, it may actually be harming employee productivity and driving a lower return on investment of taxpayer dollars.

Sometimes the best way to tell a story is by starting at the end. This story ends with productivity growth rates that have been declining for the past decade (see below.) While growth rates are still technically growing, a 0.3 percent productivity growth rate for 2012 is still cause for concern. New internet based collaboration technologies, flexible schedules, mobile devices, cloud computing and much more should be driving greater productivity growth. Yet here we are, almost five years into a recession with long-term productivity decreases.

In the past few days, we’ve explained the link between productivity and employee engagement . Simply put, engaged employees are vital to organizational success because they drive innovation, growth, and most importantly, produce at much higher levels than even their satisfied counterparts . Organizations are more profitable and productive when more employees are engaged, but engagement levels have been dropping across the board.

A Kenexa report detailing global trends in employee engagement found that, “The phenomenon of declining employee engagement was not limited in geographic scope, job type, or even industry. In 2011, employee engagement levels declined in all six major economies.” An Aon Hewitt report found a similar trend, noting, “In fact, 2010 engagement levels represented the largest decline in employee engagement research that Aon Hewitt has seen in the last 15 years.”

The correlation between declining productivity and declining engagement is no accident. Engaged workers increase productivity, but the “do more with less” message may be drastically lowering employee engagement.

“Doing more with less” seems like a logical, practical response to a downturned economy. After all, doing more with less really just means increasing efficiency. Yet, the unintended consequence of a long-term focus on cutting non-essential costs and making operations increasingly “lean” are that key requisites for engagement might get cut as well.

Much of what determines an employee’s engagement level is determined by their perceptions and expectations of an organization. Employees are typically willing to put up with some short-term cuts and talk of “doing more with less.” However, over the long-term, employee perceptions of their own ability sour and the employees begin losing faith in leadership and pride in the organization they have associated themselves with.

The double whammy of cutting HR programs and increasing perceptions of expendability or ineffectiveness will cause more and more employees to become disillusioned with work. Ultimately, this may account for consistent productivity losses across the board. The key lesson: it may be time for companies and agencies to change their messaging; if not for the sake of engagement and morale, then at least for the sake of variety.

How do you feel about the “do more with less” mantra? Do you feel it continues to have validity or that it’s become a detriment to employee engagement? Share your thoughts by joining 20,000 federal managers who have taken Government Executive’s employee engagement survey. Help create the most complete picture of engagement in federal agencies ever assembled.

Click here to take GovExec’s five-minute survey on employee engagement.

Read more of Excellence in Government's series on employee engagement below:

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