Mark Van Scyoc /

'You Spoke, We Listened': How HHS Rapidly Improved Employee Viewpoint Survey Participation

Top HR officials made a year-round effort to highlight how the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shapes the department.

Officials at the Office of Personnel Management earlier this month tipped their caps toward the Health and Human Services Department, lauding the department’s 15-percentage point increase in participation in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, a spike that is nearly unheard of for a large agency.

“I know they’ve done a lot of hard work, and they’ve made this their mission, so it’s amazing to see what they’re doing,” said Kimberly Wells, acting director of OPM’s Office of Strategy and Innovation, at a roundtable this month. “I’d love to see what HHS is doing myself. I’d love to see how we can showcase them.”

In an interview with Government Executive, HHS officials said that they have developed a department-wide focus on the annual survey, both encouraging employees to participate and consistently explaining on a year-round basis how the results inform decisions. HHS Chief Human Capital Officer Blair Duncan said that the theme for the 2018 survey cycle was “You Spoke,” while this year officials have adopted the mantra, “We Listened.”

One aspect of the initiative is simple: a rigorous campaign to encourage employees to take the survey.

“Basically, six to eight weeks prior to the launch of the survey, we put a campaign together, with videos saying that we want to hear your voice, so please fill out the survey,” Duncan said. “There were two or three videos, and then we had a constant email campaign reminding people that it’s coming. And even while FEVS was open, we sent continuous reminders to please take the survey.”

But efforts like that were merely the first step. OPM and good government groups have found that response rates are closely correlated with how employees respond to questions regarding whether they believe their agency will act upon the survey’s results. HHS Chief Learning Officer Johnathan Gardner said his team produces reports for every division and subdivision within the department, down to any manager with at least 10 survey respondents reporting to them, amounting to roughly 2,800 datasets.

“Once the data is released, we meet with our program managers every two weeks to talk about what we’re doing in the [operations divisions] and [staff divisions] to address the results,” Gardner said. “So right now, organizations are distributing data to the lowest level, and managers are encouraged to take that data and have conversations about it with their employees. Then we work on action planning, and within teams track what they’re doing to those action plans. The goal is for a supervisor to say, ‘I received the data, and I’ve heard what you said, and now we’re taking action on these results.’ ”

In addition, Duncan’s office is working on a tool called HR Exchange, where managers can access the raw data for their own employees, as well as other work units across the department, through a web browser. The tool, which is slated to go live in early 2020, will allow supervisors to see precisely which questions are driving scores in different indices, as well as see where they can turn to for assistance.

“We meet every two weeks, and we do share best practices across the department, but with this tool, it’s transparent,” Gardner said. “You can see the data for your organization, and you’ll be able to hover over a score and see what questions are a part of that. And if there’s another organization that did well on that question, you’ll see the comparison, and then you can go and reach out to that other manager.”

HHS Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer Bahar Niakan said another big point of emphasis is the idea that managers should not only take action in response to FEVS results, but explain how each action they take relates to employees’ concerns.

“Let’s say I’m a manager and my FEVS results say that I’m not communicating my organization’s goals,” she said. “So what I hear from those results is that I didn’t realize that I wasn’t communicating them—everyday I’m working on a goal and pulling leaders into that—so perhaps instead of counting on them to cascade the message down, I need to communicate more directly. So what I could do is develop a newsletter that goes out on a monthly basis communicating what we’re doing to achieve those goals, or maybe do more town halls on a quarterly basis to speak more directly, so that there’s always a line of sight on where we’re going and the role you play in that.”

Duncan said that by stressing the importance of FEVS on a year-round basis, it becomes a “mindset” that can inform decision-making, whether it’s a decision to improve employee engagement, or finding ways to be transparent and mitigate what might be a difficult or intrinsically unpopular decision.

“When I make a policy decision or a managerial decision, I think, ‘How will that impact the workforce?’ ” Duncan said. “It’s a different way of thinking . . . And sometimes you know that decisions have to be made that will impact the FEVS score, so if you come with the understanding that this will occur, you can explain why this decision was made. So before a policy or a program is rolled out and thrust upon them—go forth and do this—I understand this may cause angst or change and may make you uncomfortable, but this is the why behind it.”

“Often, in everyday life, you want to understand why something was done unto you,” Niakan said. “A lot of times, in a leader-employee activity, if a leader is doing the acting, the employee might feel done unto if they don’t understand the why. If they do understand why, they can then say, ‘What role do I want to play in this?’ And engaging the employee like this is what should be happening on a daily basis.”