Employee Engagement: The Key to Government Performance

July 18, 2013

government employee engagement

Government service used to be a respected profession–described as a “noble calling” by President George H.W. Bush. The best and brightest aspired to make a difference by devoting their careers to public service.

Sadly, opinion has changed, and the public no longer views government as a noble calling.

Those who criticize the government, and the people who work in government, have lost sight of the critically important work of the public sector. This work affects everyone–nationally, in our states, and in our local communities.

At the same time government is being criticized and hamstrung by budget cuts, the public continues to ask government to solve some of our toughest and most intractable problems: fixing the economy, putting people back to work, supporting a war that has stubbornly persisted for more than a decade, protecting the public, maintaining the quality of life in our communities, eliminating poverty, expanding opportunity by improving the education system, providing affordable health care, and so on.

This paradox–attacking public servants while at the same time expecting them to solve problems no other sector can handle–places government leaders and managers squarely in the middle of an extremely difficult situation.  Those who lead the 18,000,000-strong public-sector workforce must somehow find ways to motivate their employees despite harsh criticism and shrinking resources.

One proven way to meet this challenge 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.

The concept of employee engagement has been around for decades but has come into much greater focus in the past decade. One particularly useful and actionable definition, from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), characterizes engagement as a heightened employee connection to work, the organization, the mission, or coworkers. Engaged employees find personal meaning and pride in their work. They believe that their organizations value them, and in return, engaged employees are more likely to go above the minimum and expend “discretionary effort” to deliver performance.

There is strong research-based evidence for why managers should care about employee engagement. Simply put, organizations with engaged employees outperform organizations whose employees are not engaged.

For example, the Gallup organization, best known for its public-opinion polling, has also systematically studied employee involvement by analyzing engagement surveys of millions of employees. Gallup’s research reveals that high-engagement organization outperform low-engagement organizations in seven critical areas: profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction, retention, absenteeism, safety, and lost or stolen inventory. According to Gallup, high-engagement organizations are almost 20 percent more productive than their low-engagement counterparts.

These results also translate to government. The Gallup (and other) research shows that improved engagement drives outcomes that are also important in government, like productivity, customer satisfaction, and retention. Think about what a 20 percent improvement in productivity would do for your organization, jurisdiction, agency, or work unit.

Even more specific to the public sector, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board studied survey results from 37,000 federal government employees. The board found that higher levels of employee engagement across the federal government correlated with:

  • Higher rates of success achieving strategic goals
  • Better employee retention
  • Fewer days of sick leave and less lost time due to work-related injury or illness, and
  • Fewer equal employment opportunity complaints.

A Towers Watson Consulting survey of more than 17.000 public and non-profit employees revealed that highly engaged employees scored dramatically higher than moderately engaged and disengaged employees on key survey questions including “I can positively impact quality,” I can positively impact cost,” and “I can positively impact customer service.”

So, it should be clear that employee engagement is a powerful force for improving government effectiveness. Given the challenges public-sector managers face trying to succeed despite public criticism, budget cuts, layoffs, and reductions in employee compensation and benefits, building and maintaining employee engagement is more important now than ever.


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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.

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    […] Look at your systems before blaming the employee. Often it’s the manager or the situation that is causing the problem. “Remember,” Stew Liff told the crowd “People want to do a good job.” In fact, many public servants were moved to work for the government because of a desire to help the greater good. Focusing on what unites your team will build engagement, which has been shown to improve performance. […]

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