Why Engagement Matters and How to Improve It

The results of past employee viewpoint surveys haven’t been very useful to most frontline managers trying to address challenges specific to their organizations.

The Office of Personnel Management will begin administering the 2019 version of the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey on May 13th to nearly all 2 million civilian federal employees.  

There has been declining participation in the survey. While 598,000 responded last year, that was less than 41% of the 1.47 million who were asked to participate.

So, does the survey matter?

According to a recent study by the Partnership for Public Service, “Analysis of data from nearly 150 VA medical centers over a three-year period revealed that facilities with stronger employee engagement had higher patient satisfaction, better call center performance and lower turnover among registered nurses.”

The study summarizes similar findings from private sector studies and suggests that this relationship may hold true in other government agencies with different missions. So yes, the survey—which gauges employee engagement in 80,000 work units across the government—does matter.

In fact, the Office of Management and Budget recognizes the importance of improving employee engagement in frontline work units and has set a challenging goal: “All major components [or] bureaus will identify its bottom 20% on the 2018 Employee Engagement Index and target a 20% improvement in those units by the end of 2020.”  

Why is this seen as important by OMB? To reduce the risk of mission failure in these work units. After all, would you want disengaged air traffic controllers in charge of landing your flight?

However, the results of past surveys have been less useful to frontline managers in addressing the specific challenges in their work units because the data results they receive are too generalized. For example, the Partnership for Public Service’s “Best Places to Work” initiative is based on the OPM survey data, but are summarized at a departmental or bureau level and are not seen as helpful by frontline managers. One person commented: “This is like being told your lost car keys are in the house. Okay, but could you be more specific as to where to look?”

Finding the Keys  

Camille Hoover may have found those metaphorical keys. Hoover is the executive officer for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is one of the 27 institutes and centers that comprise the National Institutes for Health.

Hoover and her colleagues were frustrated by the amount of time and effort it took to organize and analyze the data OPM provides to agency managers. She asked her colleagues Robin Klevins and Vy Tran to help her decipher the information and to create a useful framework. What they created was a simple Excel-based tool that, in five steps, analyzes the OPM data for any frontline manager with 10 or more staff that responded to the survey.  

Prior to 2015, NIDDK only received the OPM survey results for its 1,300 employees at the institute level. Now its leaders can conduct deeper dives to create targeted strategic initiatives to improve conditions in its 20 frontline units. Hoover says that the beauty of this analytical tool is its simplicity of use and ability to bring to life the voice of employees.  

For her organization, creating one report for a frontline unit previously took 30 hours. Now it takes five minutes. In five simple steps the data is organized visually into graphs, a colorful “heat map” dashboard, and deeper dive tables. The tool allows managers to start at the “30,000-foot level” and then drill down to identify very specific strengths, pain points and opportunities for improvement within frontline units or for institute-wide initiatives.  

NIDDK has the highest-ranking scores among NIH’s institutes and centers in almost every index of the survey However, the breakdown of the institute’s data into its 20 work units vividly showed that one in particular was problematic. Previously, this anomaly was hidden in the overall data.

Hoover, together with frontline managers, developed targeted interventions to resolve the numerous challenges in that one work unit. She also identified three thematic areas across the 20 work units to improve employees’ experience: performance, recognition and professional development. She then worked with frontline managers to develop a strategy for each of these cross-cutting areas. For example, to address the professional development of employees, Hoover created workshops for employees to show them how to develop professional networks and how to “manage up.” She also created a mentoring program. Within a year’s time, NIDDK’s scores in that area rose dramatically.

The Campaign to Get Out the Word  

OMB “discovered” NIDDK’s efforts and saw its approach as a proof of concept that an organization and its leadership could significantly improve employee work experiences within a year by creating strategic initiatives and leading targeted interventions—if they had clear and actionable data on its frontline units. Based on the institute’s success, OMB asked Hoover to co-lead the governmentwide effort to improve employee performance and engagement.

The NIDDK team has been on a campaign over the past year to gift their Excel tool to other agencies. They have presented their engagement efforts to representatives from all 15 executive departments, conducted more than 60 meetings and training opportunities, and presented to the President’s Management Council this past December.  

While the team’s efforts to gift their tool to others is outside their primary responsibilities, NIH leadership has given them leeway to meet with other agencies to share it, conduct custom analysis, and provide advice and guidance to federal organizations striving to improve employee performance and engagement.  

Many agencies have adopted the tool and have benefited from both the information it provides and the efficiencies it has created. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced its analytic time from 72 days to 1 day—a savings of over $30,000 and a reduction of 96% in time and cost. This savings has allowed them to increase their reporting six-fold, providing frontline managers custom analysis for their areas that they may not have been privy to otherwise.

NIDDK’s analytic tool is available free via the governmentwide website (which is open only to federal employees). There is also a YouTube tutorial video on how it can be used, as well (which is open to anyone).  

The Untapped Opportunity  

In 2018, there were 28,000 work units across the federal government with 10 or more survey participants. That equates to 28,000 opportunities for deeper dive analysis. Ensuring frontline managers in these work units have access to their survey data in a timely and readily understandable format is an important step. However, Hoover notes that action to improve organizational performance and engagement, which is also encouraged by the National Academy of Public Administration, “really starts with leaders at every level of the organization.” Senior leaders need to empower their frontline managers to act. They also need to provide them with the tools, training and support needed to affect change.  

Sometimes frontline supervisors feel ill-equipped to address poor performance and are unsure if their supervisors will support them in holding employees accountable, Hoover said. This can result in the acceptance of mediocrity and no consequences for poor performance. When she saw this in pockets of her organization, Hoover created a new vision, established core values and raised the bar for acceptable performance. She worked closely with frontline managers who, in-turn became her ambassadors, embraced her vision and emulated her core values. And, most importantly, she backed them up when action needed to be taken.

As a result, over the past three years the employee survey results for NIDDK have continued to improve. However, Hoover still sees opportunities for further improvement—there, and across government.