Breaking the Cycle of Constant Action Planning

Shifting the focus to implementation is what produces results.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office presented testimony during an employee engagement hearing before the House Subcommittee on Government Operations. GAO suggested that the short cycle time between one annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the next compresses the action planning process, which may actually inhibit the ability to produce the results necessary for organizational change.

GAO’s finding raises the specter that we may be reaching a critical juncture where the importance of action planning is supplanted by the benefits of a steady, focused and longer cycle of implementation.

To get to the root of this issue, senior government officials should ask one simple question: Does it seem like your agency is stuck in a perpetual cycle of action planning, leaving little or no time to implement employee engagement programs?

If the answer is no, please feel free to stop reading because your agency is one of the lucky ones. If the answer is yes, please continue on.

An affirmative answer to the first question, then begs a second. What steps is your agency taking to instill confidence that FEVS will be used to make improvements in the workplace?

Unfortunately, the survey does not yield positive results in this category. In 2011, 45 percent of employees believed the survey results would be used to make their agency a better place to work. In 2014, that number dropped to 38 percent, making it one of the lowest rated survey items.

One apparent reason may be the fact that employee engagement activities take time to mature. Therefore, the benefits of these programs and activities may not be readily apparent to the employees.

To combat the delayed reaction on the realized rate of return, agencies should consider the following actions:

  • Move to a two-year implementation cycle. Instead of getting caught in a closed loop of action planning every year, agencies should consider institutionalizing a biennial implementation cycle. Shifting the focus from action planning to implementation will allow the agency to concentrate on delivering results, not drafting plans. The Office of Management and Budget’s memorandum dated April 6, 2015, outlines the two-year process for developing agency priority goals in the twilight of the current administration. Moving forward, agencies could leverage this two-year planning cycle as the framework for establishing their FEVS implementation activities.

  • Track results quarterly and validate goals at the end of the one-year mark. Designing a longer implementation cycle should be accompanied by a rigorous and regular reporting process. Agencies should thus utilize their quarterly data driven review sessions to track and report progress against key employee engagement related success indicators. At the mid-point of the two-year cycle, agencies could revisit and revalidate their engagement related activities and accomplishments. Based on emerging trends from the updated employee viewpoint survey, new goals could be established at the mid-point, while others are either removed or remain in place. Using the quarterly data driven review cycle coupled with a mid-point revalidation process has the added benefit of allowing key constituencies including agency leaders, employees, Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management and GAO to gauge momentum on a recurring basis.

  • Identify and analyze other compelling engagement related data. In their testimony, GAO noted the importance of supplementing FEVS information with other data to drive human capital results. In 2012, Richard Hartman and I co-authored an article on a similar topic for Nextgov. While our assessment was written on the eve of sequestration and through the lens of measuring programmatic performance, the commentary is consistent with GAO’s suggestion of using a wide variety of data to inform and drive decisions. In short, employee engagement programs can be measured by a wealth of other data elements beyond the FEVS. Examining attrition, employee and organizational performance, workload, and internal and external customer service data can provide a more comprehensive picture of employee engagement.

  • Regularly communicate results, successes, and even setbacks. An agency’s FEVS action plan should also be accompanied by a targeted and tailored communication and change management strategy. This strategy document must outline an actionable process for (1) identifying target audiences and (2) developing and delivering clear, concise and consistent messages to the appropriate stakeholders. Sharing engagement related successes with key constituencies, including employees, on a regular and recurring basis will re-affirm the agency’s commitment to its workforce. In addition, acknowledging where an agency is falling short can be a difficult, yet empowering, prospect. It takes a courageous and skilled communicator to articulate setbacks in a positive and constructive manner. But the transparency can be refreshing and will present unique opportunities to galvanize support and ultimately inject higher levels of accountability into the organization.

If enough agencies adopt a two-year implementation cycle and are able to demonstrate its value, the next administration could institutionalize the approach by aligning it with the four-year strategic planning process outlined in the 2010 modernization of the Government Performance and Results Act.

Specifically, an incoming administration could require agencies to align their FEVS action planning in conjunction with the development of new strategic plans. Engagement-related progress could be captured quarterly and goals updated during the middle of the president’s term. Then another implementation cycle would commence with the last quarterly results reported near the end of administration.

Setting the forthcoming transition aside, establishing a two-year implementation cycle driven by quarterly reviews would give current leaders more time to implement important engagement activities. Maybe then, employees would feel that the results from the survey are making their agencies a better place to work.

John Salamone, a vice president at Federal Management Partners Inc., a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, and a SAGE with the Partnership for Public Service, served in the federal government for 16 years and was executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.

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