5 Steps to Improve Employee Engagement in Government

July 23, 2013

government employee engagement

Now is not an easy time to be employed in the public sector. Heated budget battles and rhetoric about the size, function, scope, and effectiveness of government have generated criticism not just of government but also of the public servants who deliver government services. The challenge for public-sector leaders is to maintain or improve effectiveness in this difficult environment.

One proven solution is to improve the level of employee engagement. After all, the primary resource we have in government is our talent—our people. If they perform well, government performs well.

But how do we assess and improve employee engagement in the complicated and highly-visible world of the public sector? I propose an employee engagement process model with five steps that focus on surveying employees to assess the level of engagement in the organization. Implementing this model can produce powerful results in the form of improved employee and organizational performance.

Step 1: Plan the Employee Engagement Survey

Planning includes deciding whether to survey, whom to survey, what questions to ask (e.g., develop a survey or use an existing survey), and when and how to administer the survey. Planning should also include decisions about how survey results will be analyzed and reported, including whether results can be benchmarked against comparable organizations, what the units of analysis will be (e.g., overall jurisdiction or agency, individual work units, specific managers, demographic groups), how the results will be reported, and who will receive the data.

Planning also covers issues like deciding on the strategy and process for acting on the data, often by forming action teams of a cross-section of employees. The overall plan should include the long-term engagement strategy, including regularly conducting follow-up surveys.

Step 2: Conduct the Survey

The agency can develop the engagement survey itself or administer one of the many available surveys. Similarly, the agency can administer the survey by itself or hire an outside contractor to conduct it. While most agencies will conduct the survey online, it may also be necessary to provide a hard-copy option for employees who can’t, or won’t, be able to complete it online. Maximizing response rates means ensuring that individual employee survey responses will be held in confidence (e.g., not seen by anyone in the agency) and also following up to remind employees to complete the survey.

Step 3: Report and Analyze the Results

There are a wide variety of ways to report on and analyze the survey results. One important aspect to analyze is the survey response rate—the percentage of employees who complete the survey.

Many surveys can also generate an engagement index—a composite score that summarizes the overall level of engagement across the entire organization. Analysis should also report and review the results question by question to identify areas of strength that should be maintained, as well as areas the agency needs to improve. This applies to the organization overall, as well as for smaller components such as work units and locations, individual managers, and demographic groups.

Analysis can also include more detailed and sophisticated analytics, such as comparing agency results against similar results from outside organizations (benchmarking), and identifying the “drivers” of engagement (i.e., the items that statistical analysis reveals are most influential in determining the engagement levels of employees).

Step 4: Take Action to Improve Employee Engagement

Real change requires taking action on the engagement survey data. Many agencies have formed action teams that analyze the survey data, develop recommendations to act on the results, and then put together detailed action plans to implement approved recommendations.

The action team should develop a plan that includes identifying priorities, maintaining strengths and improving on weaknesses. The plan should also identify who is responsible for specific actions and include milestones to assess progress.

Step 5: Sustain Employee Engagement

A key aspect of sustaining engagement is regularly measuring engagement through surveys. That’s the only sure way to really know if employees are engaged. Periodic surveying makes the entire organization—including leaders, managers, and supervisors—accountable for employee engagement. Agencies that conduct engagement surveys typically do them on a regularly scheduled basis.

Sustaining engagement also requires continued support by leaders, managers, and supervisors.


Communication should be a unifying force in the journey to improved employee engagement. Agencies must communicate frequently and candidly, before, during, and after the survey process, including throughout action planning and implementation.

The employee engagement survey model is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The steps are intentionally broad to allow individual public-sector organizations to tailor it to their needs. Each jurisdiction and agency needs to adapt the model to its own mission, values, strategy, culture, and capabilities before adopting it.


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About The Author

Bob Lavigna has more than 30 years of experience leading public sector human capital management organizations, including positions with the state of Wisconsin, Partnership for Public Service, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and the University of Wisconsin.

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