Promoting Employee Engagement In a Time of Crisis

A new initiative is needed to create bottom-up demand for improving organizational health and performance.

Instead of attempting major civil service reform, the Obama administration focused on employee interaction and workplace improvement rather than civil service reform. Those efforts offer lessons for today.

When President Obama took office, it was the depth of the Great Recession and he froze pay and bonuses for the civil service to reflect the economic downturn across the country. However, the Administration undertook several efforts to improve the working environment for employees by:

After several years, the administration homed in on several personnel-related issues that were widely seen as sticking points to improving the government’s workforce and culture:

  • Senior career executives were not being developed or held accountable to be successful in an increasingly complex work environment; and
  • Managers and applicants continued to complain about a broken recruiting and hiring process that stymied them from getting the best talent.
  • Federal employees were expressing less positive views about their leaders, supervisors, work experience, and other drivers of employee engagement.

In 2014, the White House created an advisory group to strengthen the career Senior Executive Service, jointly overseen by Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Meg McLaughlin, head of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, and Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The group proposed administrative reforms to streamline the hiring, onboarding, pay, succession planning, and career development of executives. Most of the committee’s recommendations were incorporated into a 2015 presidential executive order. Probably the most prominent of the recommendations was a requirement that agencies rotate about 15 percent of their senior executives to different positions for at least a four-month period to help them better develop as leaders.

Efforts continued to improve the recruiting and hiring process, but this remained a perennial issue during the entire course of the Obama administration. OPM identified existing authorities and flexibilities and set out to map the processes in major agencies to identify areas for improvement. Under Angela Bailey’s leadership, OPM worked with both the President’s Management Council and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to develop a hiring reform “one stop” website as well as a “myth buster” guide to both educate HR staff and agency managers about what is and is not possible.

Near the end of the administration’s tenure, OMB and OPM jointly launched a “Hiring Excellence” campaign to spread best practices and help agencies use existing authorities to meet their needs.” Based on insights and lessons learned from the campaign, OPM and OMB also released a joint memo, in late 2016 that required agencies to commit to focus on improvements throughout 2017. A subsequent report by the Government Accountability Office in 2019 found little progress, offered another set of best practices, and encouraged agencies to adopt them.

Measuring Employee Engagement 

The personnel-related initiative that gained significant traction and attention was a concerted emphasis to increase federal employees’ engagement with their work. In the private sector, this was seen as an important element in both improving organizational performance and improving talent retention. It was also a way to listen to the voice of the employees while setting personnel priorities.

The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey begun under the Bush Administration was a critical component of this initiative. By 2009, it was a robust instrument that provided insights at a granular level in most agencies, so leaders could both see what was going on at the frontline and be held accountable for making improvements.

The results of the survey were popularized through a “Best Places to Work” report prepared by a nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which also held recognition award ceremonies for the top-ranked and most improved agencies. These rankings were used by OMB to encourage agency leaders to pay attention to their own agencies’ rankings and develop strategies to improve in following years.

In a joint 2014 memo to agency heads, the heads of OMB, OPM and the Office of Presidential Personnel cited their commitment to a cross-agency priority goal to improve employee engagement and directed each agency to designate a senior executive to be the point person for this effort.

For example, in 2009, the White House asked the Secretary of Agriculture to prioritize improving USDA’s Best Places to Work score. At the time, the department ranked in the lowest quartile of the rankings for large agencies. While a few agencies within the department used survey data to assess employee engagement, there was no departmentwide, systematic approach. The Secretary designated Greg Parham, assistant secretary for administration, to lead the effort. 

Dr. Parham shared data with the secretary on a monthly basis on aspects of employee engagement and he traveled the country, visiting field offices to learn firsthand what initiatives were working and what might be done to improve engagement. This concerted effort turned around the department’s trends and improved its standing. In 2016, USDA was lauded for ranking in the top 10 agencies for the first time.

At the National Institutes of Health, Camille M. Hoover, Executive Officer of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, developed action plan that focused on empowering managers, setting standards, and holding them accountable for action. She stressed that managers need to be able to talk about the elements of the survey instrument – like improving communication and recognition for good work – day in and day out. And managers need to explicitly tie it back to the survey so employees see that the managers are in fact acting upon their survey responses. Hoover and her staff translated the elements in the governmentwide survey into actionable behaviors, based on analyses and comparative data they developed.

Insights for Continued Improvement    

Going forward, an employee engagement initiative needs to create a new bottom-up demand for improving organizational health and performance, a demand tailored to the needs of different missions and units. A 2018 study by the National Academy of Public Administration looked at agency efforts and recommended creating a bottom-up demand by leveraging three strategic components:

  • Strengthen unit-level health and performance. Assess and diagnose the state of unit-level organizational health and performance by using existing data, such as the employee engagement index derived from the annual government-wide employee viewpoint survey. These survey data are available to 28,000 work units across the government. Expand and refine analyses over time to include the use of other data sources, such as operational and mission support performance data.
  • Create a learning-based approach to improving results. To act on these assessments, create a learning-based approach (rather than a directive approach) to improve organizational capacity and performance in agencies. Engage organizational units to develop their own individually tailored plans for improvement. The specific elements would be defined within each major mission area. The strategy may cross program and agency boundaries. Plans would be peer-reviewed.
  • Employ the power of data analytics to manage. To sustain the learning-based approach, help managers make effective use of new data available to managers relevant to their operations by giving them tools to access, analyze, and apply those data, as well as the skills to manage in this new data-rich environment. Encourage the creation of communities of practice where managers can learn from each other’s experiences well as from more formal training opportunities.    

The emphasis on improving employee engagement was subsequently incorporated into the current administration’s management agenda as an element of its cross-agency priority goal on developing a 21st Century Workforce. The cross-agency goal assesses progress top-down, across the government and at the agency level. The National Academy of Public Administration’s recommendations can serve as a benchmark for fostering bottom-up, unit-level improvements within agencies.

This post is part of a series developed by the IBM Center for The Business of Government that reflects on lessons from past government reform efforts. Listen to the podcast discussion here.