employee engagement; leadership

According to a recent study released by Oracle and Kantar TNS, digital technology, leadership, and company values are the top drivers for employee engagement.

The Global Engagement Study received feedback from nearly 5,000 full-time employees at organizations with 250 or more employees from around the world. In the survey results, it revealed that the availability of leaders and managers, and confidence in their leadership, seemed tightly linked:

  • 41% believe that onboarding processes set them up for growth and success
  • 47% say their leaders are visible and approachable
  • 47% say they receive recognition when they do a good job
  • 48% believe strongly in and support their organization’s future direction
  • 44% say they have confidence in the leadership of their organization

The results also reported that these results showcase two very interesting insights: that an accessible and approachable leader inspires greater confidence, and has a larger impact on performance recognition.

So what can today’s local government leaders do to directly impact and improve engagement? The descriptions that follow are examples of specific actions that public sector organizations have taken, in five key areas, to improve employee engagement. These five areas have been retrieved from the InFocus Report: Leveraging the Power of Employee Engagement. The five dimensions described below are:

  1. Provide senior-level and enterprise-wide leadership
  2. Build managerial and leadership competence
  3. Put in place more effective employee performance management practices
  4. Create a positive work environment
  5. Implement a comprehensive and structured new employee onboarding process.

Provide senior-level and enterprise-wide leadership

Virtually all analyses of employee engagement identify leadership as a critically important driver of engagement. Therefore, part of the solution to improve engagement is for senior-level and enterprise-wide leadership to make engagement an organizational priority. This is particularly critical in government, given such factors as attacks on the public service, frequent leadership changes, and hard-to-measure goals.

The city of Minneapolis and the Oregon Metro Government have both incorporated employee engagement into their strategic goals and then acted on this commitment. In Minneapolis, the strategic goal is “a city that works,” and it includes “city employees are high-performing, empowered and engaged.” In Oregon Metro, the human resource (HR) department’s vision is to “increase level of employee engagement in order to maintain a productive workforce to meet agency mission.” A strategic goal in the HR department’s five-year plan is to “create a great workplace with diverse, engaged, productive and well trained employees.”

Build managerial and leadership competence

Government agencies that have focused on assessing and then improving engagement understand the connection between strong leadership competence and employee engagement. Strong leadership, including at supervisory levels, can overcome obstacles to engagement, such as frequent top leadership changes, hard-to-measure goals, and complicated decision-making structures.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles Communication Programs Division, in response to survey results, collaborated with the University of California–Davis on a leadership development program that focuses on the different levels of management and includes a component on employee empowerment, management styles, and how styles need to align with employees. In Canada, the province of Alberta made senior leaders accountable for improving employee engagement by including engagement as an element in the executives’ performance goals and contracts.

Put in place more effective employee performance management practices

To be fully engaged, employees need to understand their roles, responsibilities, and expectations, and need to receive performance feedback. This is especially critical to employee engagement in government because managers are constrained by frequent leadership changes, complicated decision making, hard-to-measure goals, and restrictive civil service rules; in addition, they lack the financial incentives that private sector managers have.

The MSPB compared the practices of the four federal agencies with the highest levels of employee engagement to the four bottom-scoring agencies. According to the MSPB, “every positive performance management practice we reviewed (e.g., senior leaders communicating openly and honestly with employees; employees having written performance goals) is employed more widely in high engagement agencies than in low engagement agencies.”1

Create a positive work environment

Public sector agencies that have measured employee satisfaction/engagement have also taken steps to create more positive work environments, including helping their employees balance their work and personal lives. This is important for building engagement in government, particularly because, as previously noted, government workforces are older, more highly educated, and more white-collar than the private sector workforce, and because government managers have fewer tools with which to recognize superior performance. While effective performance management by supervisors is fundamental to creating a positive work environment, more flexible work arrangements can also help.

For example, in response to employee survey results, the Minneapolis city council approved an alternative work arrangement policy to “increase employee commitment, engagement, morale and productivity.” The policy includes

  • Compressed workweeks
  • Flextime
  • Job sharing
  • Gradual retirement
  • Telework.

Implement a comprehensive and structured new employee onboarding process

Onboarding, or organizational socialization, is particularly critical for new employees in government. First, there is a strong link between onboarding and employee engagement.2 Further, government hiring can be slow and laborious, so agencies should be especially committed to making sure that new hires get off to a good start and do not quickly become disillusioned and leave. Moreover, since it is difficult to remove poor per- formers in government after they pass probation, it is critical to weed out poor fits during the onboarding process.

To address this often underappreciated issue in government, the Partnership for Public Service, in cooperation with Booz Allen Hamilton, developed a comprehensive model for strategic onboarding designed specifically for government. This model, shown below, has five phases, beginning when the new employee accepts the job offer and continuing through the entire first year of employment.

Strategic Onboarding Process


1 MSPB, Managing for Engagement—Communication, Connection, and Courage (Washington, D.C.: MSPB, 2009), mspb.gov/netsearch/viewdocs.aspx?docnumber=437591&version=438697&application=ACROBAT.

2 Partnership for Public Service (PPS), Getting On Board: A Model for Integrating and Engaging New Employees (Washington, D.C: PPS and Booz Allen Hamilton, 2008), ourpublicservice.org/OPS/publications/download.php?id=128.

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