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Welcome to Voices in Local Government, an ICMA Podcast. My name is Joe Supervielle and today we're joined by Mr. Joshua Pack, director of public works for Butte County, California to discuss employee engagement. Thanks for joining us today.
Yeah, thanks for having me, Joe. It's good to see you again.
Before we get into the topic. Can you give the audience a little bit background on Butte in terms of kind of staff size budget for the entire organization, and also maybe there in your department with public works just for reference point.
Butte County is roughly about an hour North of Sacramento. It's a pretty diverse county. We have valley low lands, agriculture farming. We also have parts of the Sierra in our district so we go as low as close to sea level and as high as 5,000 feet. And we have both the challenges and the benefits of living in such a geographically diverse area. You may have heard of the County it's been prominent in the news. Pretty recently, we've had a lot of significant fires. The camp fire in 2008 is the most noteworthy and disastrous. We lost essentially the entire town of Paradise was lost. Untold damage and impacts. We've had these other fires, the North Complex Fire in 2020, and then this last year, the Dixie Fire, which was the second largest fire while started in Butte County. We were fortunate to miss a lot of the damage, but unfortunately our partners were pretty hit by that.
County as a whole has a budget of roughly somewhere just shy of a billion dollars. I think it's an $800 million range. Public works is certainly one of the bigger departments there. Here we have roughly 150 employees, a total budget of about $83 million and a lot of different diverse responsibilities from the traditional roads and infrastructure to our landfill, fleet services is within our jurisdiction. We have a separate purchasing department, the land surveying, and the county surveyor resides within public work. So it's a real diverse department within the county. We have everything from GEDs to PhDs, blue collar, white collar, and I'm sure we'll touch more on that, but that presents in itself, some unique challenges in trying to manage employee morale and employee recognition in a group that's so heterogeneous in a... It might be different from a lot of other departments that might be a little bit more uniform in the services they provide. It presents its own challenges.
You mentioned the fires that in itself is a big impact on employee morale and engagement, both responding in their jobs, but also personally as their citizens and living there too so that couldn't have been easy. And maybe was the starting point or Genesis of extra emphasis on employee engagement there.
I think that's an astute point. We have employees who lost their homes in the fires. We have family members, everyone who's worked here for a time knows someone, or has been touched directly by someone who's lost their home or has been otherwise impacted by the fires. And it's tough enough when you're trying to do a job with these conditions and then having it on your personal life. I don't want to give this lip service, but it's a little bit of a personal hell that people have to go through and it could really impact morale. And I think the other thing too, is when fires come and go, an agency will deal with it and you have a lot of different facets and elements of that, but I've heard in recent weeks and months by peers of mine in different departments that their role and responsibility in the fires is pretty much behind them. And that'll never be the case with public works. We will probably for the rest of our lives, be dealing with the ramifications and impacts.
We've seen it's, not to go too die deep into the down the rabbit hole here. There's been a long term lack of investment and infrastructure. And when you combine that with the impacts that climate change have had, you see the ramifications our roads and our infrastructure are crumbling apart. They are increasingly vulnerable to high weather events. We've had floods, we've had I think, three or four different federal disasters relating to floods back to back with fires. We've had more of those in the last two years than probably the last 50 years combined. And so all of that creates a just a real... Even for when one or two happen, it's really difficult to navigate. And when you have all that it leaves you almost numb. And I come at it from the outside. I come from other agencies and we've had disasters. I've been here a little over a year, but I nonetheless feel the impacts and the weight that people carry and it can be almost numbing.
And yet the day to day responsibilities, don't stop either so then it's the double edged sword there for your staff, which gets back into trying to understand what they're going through and how you can help as the manager or the organization as a whole, whatever HR is doing. And you said earlier, it shouldn't be lip service. It needs to be, we're really listening, and then we're actually going to implement plans to address it. Let's start at the beginning and talk to us a little bit about how you started with the survey. Just getting the data on the front end beyond just a two to three kind of question and quick, how are you feeling, type thing actually really digging into it a little bit more? How'd you start with the process?
The impetus in the Genesis actually started five years ago. At another jurisdiction, I'd done something somewhat similar to gauge performance of managers with line staff. I wanted to look at those relationships and see how they were working. And I got some really unique feedback, and it always kind of stuck with me that it was a good way to gather or gauge interest. And so when I came here in January, 2021, the North Complex Fire had just finished a few months ago. We were still dealing with the ramifications of that the other fires. And we'd had floods in 2019 that had impacted us in the fires in 2018. And I had talked to peers and others about the organization, but when I came in, I think I even seen it written down and seen the list doesn't quantify the impact until you interact with people and you start having those conversations. And as I'm introducing myself and meeting folks in my department and getting to know them better, you pick up on these things. It's not subtle. For lack of a better term it's a giant weight on the organization.
And the idea came and I wanted to hear firsthand from people who I might not normally get an opportunity to interact with. And I wanted to hear in their own words, how they were doing and what they thought we could do to better organization. And so it wasn't necessarily focused. I did a 10 question survey. We sent it out through an online survey platform. We also had printed versions because we have a significant amount of our team who doesn't have email. That in itself, that's its own challenge, trying to communicate with different groups who have different mediums and ways to interact. We have multiple different shops and so that are spread throughout the County. Those have their own challenges. How do you get equal representation? And so I worked with the managers and supervisors to push out a survey and it was really more of a general, how are you doing sort of thing?
We haven't talked about COVID or we've had some situations in Northern California where our utility provider, Pacific gas and electric have been doing rolling blackouts for the last couple of years in response to fire dangers. And so that's a separate challenge, not even knowing that your power may be out for 3, 4, 5, 6 days, how the heck do you provide services? Our brokers aren't impacted by that, but our offices are. And so it was really more just, "How you doing, what's going on." And part of it was to see, was the morale so bad that we needed to bring in, maybe some outside help especially through our employee assistance program or et cetera. There's other connections we can make there to individuals that have really struggled and don't know that these resources are available to them.
And then from there it was some of the questions were, what can we do to improve? And it wasn't to push a narrative, it wasn't to push, well, I want to do A, B or C. It was really just to get the feedback from our employees of what are we doing okay, are you okay, what can we do to support you, what do you miss, it had been what six months or eight or nine months since COVID had really hit, we hadn't really had a reconciliation of... We mobilized within days to an entirely different model of business. What was that impact on employees? The remote learning or the remote distance working and then a lot of people can't do that.
And then we're quarantined and not quarantined and quarantined again and mass and not mass and mass and so all of these things, part of it was just to really step back from a 50,000 foot level and go, how are you doing and what can we do to better support you? And that was really the main goals of that is, and to get honest and forthright answers transparently to us, but also confidentially. Employees didn't feel like we were trying to track them or punish them for their answers. I wanted honest answers. I felt we got it.
How did you communicate everything you just explained with those employees either before or as part of that survey where you can explain and communicate with them, what the goal is and what the intention is to try and maybe avoid though, this is just another HR type survey, and they're doing it just to do it so you can get ahead of that a little bit and get the buy-in from the beginning
In of itself, there's a couple of slivers of truth I want to chat about here. Number one is historically, when I've been in organizations, there can be a sense of disconnect between white and blue collar employees, especially where you see policies and procedures. You struggle with communication, how do folks in the field who don't regularly interact, you just see those kind of disconnects. And as an engineer, I've seen those disconnect with row crew. There's a certain sense of tension between those two groups. Historically, that if it's not handled right, it can impact your organization. And so how do you do that? And this was one area where technology really helps. And so I leverage... I can't especially with COVID with our restrictions on being able to assemble in large groups, really struggling with that challenge. So Zoom came to the rescue. It's a great tool or other similar platforms. I'm not highlighting Zoom on out of its own, but it was a great opportunity to use Video Conferencing software, to record brief messages and information.
And I shared it much like the way I'm sharing this with you is just kind of spoke the way I am now and here's the goal, and it's not required, it's not mandatory. I just would love to see your feedback and talk about the challenges and share that what I've shared with you, the concern and the interest in wanting to do better. And I think not over promising, there was certainly no, "Hey, I'm not coming out of this. And guaranteeing, you're going to have all 15 things in your wildest dreams come true. It's really just let us get better educated on what the struggles and challenges you're facing and opportunities we can potentially take advantage of. And that's really where I came from that.
Were video calls, or maybe the rare in person, chances you got, was that a way to express how genuine you are and your team is about it instead of maybe just that HR speak sometimes comes across as a cliche and an email. It doesn't always read well even though probably is well intended. I think personally that would come across better one on one or small groups.
I couldn't agree more. And I think one-on-one's helpful. I think trying to sell it to the managers and supervisors, because ultimately they're your direct link and the way if they go into a room of their teams and go, yeah, this is just blah, blah, blah. And they don't, this isn't going to work, then they're not going to be engaged. You have to try and sell it to the folks who are then going to sell it to our frontline staff. That was a big part of it. I felt like video, like sending an email, it just really loses its translation. And I don't know, I always find like when there's a video, it's just a different way to interact with people. Even if it's not a live, like we're doing now interacting, there's a tangible reaction beyond just words on a page that can be interpreted or misinterpreted. You can see inflections in the way I speak. You can see hopefully in earnest and honest approach with what we were trying to do.
I think that worked well. We got a good response, for a group that's so I would call relatively disconnected to online into that sort of platform, especially with folks who don't regularly interact with traditional like email technology every day. We saw roughly half of our employees. I think we had 72 submit answers or submit their surveys, which for a group that traditionally doesn't interact like that I was really pleased. I was really happy with those responses. And we got paper versions. We got email through online survey formats. And it was good feedback. Some of it was griping and some of it was reliving of grievances and that's fine. But I think when you cut through those little small things, there were some real tangible messages that came through and we'll talk, I'm sure we'll talk more.
Yeah, that's a good response rate. How did you settle on how many questions, how detailed to get into any company organization team that sends out surveys, ICMA included, by the way, there's always that dilemma on, we want as much information as possible, but let's not overdo it or ask too much of the person filling it out. By the way, ICMA will make the template available that can be tweaked, or people can use it as a starting point to recreate something on their team. But how did you settle on how many questions, what type of questions and what you really wanted to get out of it the most, you said earlier, it was kind of a just a general check-in, but you do get into some details.
Part of it was artificial because the software we were using, we were trying to use the unpaid or the less expensive version. And that was limited to 10 questions. That makes it kind of easy. Let the software dictate that. And a lot of the questions were check boxes. It was, how are you feeling and then it ranged from, fantastic. Everything's going great to rating-
I'm messed up. Yeah, it was a rating scale. I would say the first seven or eight were ranking scales. And so that in itself, it's going to take anyone with, even if you take some time to think about it's a minute or two. And then the last two were "Hey, give us feedback. What's what's going on." That was the opportunity for people who wanted to dig in a little bit more and share their story to spend five or 10 or 15 minutes with that. And so it kind of weighed both. It helped kind of give us a gauge of the folks who didn't have the time or who maybe were, are kind of more indifferent or, or weren't engaged in it as much they could still fill it out. And then those who wanted to share more could. And so it worked out really well.
It was and I agree with you, we didn't want to overwhelm it. We didn't want to go into any details or specifics. And I think especially with everything that happened, it was really, the impetus of it was just, how are you feeling, how are things, are you okay, do you need help? It almost came at it from a just more of like an employee wellness sort of approach and that approach forced it and was a natural fit to being more high level, very basic, simple questions. And I think when you came at it from that way, it was really easy to resist the urge of trying to dive in deeper and have real specificity with the questions.
Let's get into the results. Were you surprised, did it kind of clarify or confirm what your sense was? What were the results? How did it go? What were the first steps to kind of interpreting the data?
I think there were some questions that came back pretty similar. There were a few things I was a little surprised with, and I would say pleasantly surprised. The questions on morale, most of the answers came back with the general kind of flavor was we're okay. It's not great, but we'll get through it. And I was really trying to think of the right word. I don't want to please isn't the right word, but I was almost impressed with just kind of, if it was me and I'd been through all this and the challenges. And I feel it, being here a little over a year, the stress and the struggles. All everything that people have been through to still have a at least a, "Hey I'm okay. I'm all right. Things are here." I came away impressed with that. I came away impressed with the organization and our team with their resiliency. And that was something that really stood out.
I was expecting a lot more negative or very, were really struggling sort of responses. And so that was, that was good. I think beyond that, I think some of the other questions, do you feel like we're supporting you, do you feel like you have the tools? Those came back, I don't think there were any surprises there. I think the one question, and this is what we'll talk about it'll kind of move us forward, was I asked about, what don't we do well, do we take an opportunity.... There was a question about, do we take an opportunity to recognize our achievements?
And that was the one that really came back and said, no, we don't do that. We don't do anything. When people do a good job or people complete task successfully, or they give good customer service, there was no reward system. And so when you have all this real bad stuff happen, I think you have to recognize when good things happen. When you're not doing that and you're only recognizing when the bad things happen, whether it's sometimes we don't do the best job on something, or just in general, the responsibilities are so disproportionate to our resources. It's just really difficult to meet those challenges. And so not recognizing the wins that we did have was just really difficult. And so that was the thing that really stood out. And it was in a lot of responses. And then even in the follow up questions, that was the one thing that really stood out and told me kind of immediately, we need to get something in place to start doing that in some meaningful way.
Time back into being genuine about the whole process. You can't really put out a survey if you're not willing to hear some tough answers or kind of look in the mirror collectively and say, "This is true. We're not doing good enough in this area." That was the big one that came back. How did you communicate those answers back to the group, acknowledging that this was the feedback, this was the critique, and here's initial plan on what we're going to try to do to address it.
The feedback that we had gotten through the Zoom style interview and recording, and we posted it on YouTube, I did the same thing. And I set up a presentation that highlighted each question and the responses to each not individual responses, because some of them were personal and it could hinder the confidentiality. With 72 responses I can share how do people feel and what that ratio is. And I grouped it into three things, I think things that were somewhat expected, things that were Hey, these are tough times and this is what we expect. Here are things that I think stood out really well. Things that folks highlighted that were really well. And I think at the end was these are the things that really stood out that we need to do a better job of doing.
And so highlighting that and sharing the data with everybody in a easily digestible format. And then there were also a bunch of ideas and so people had at the end of the... What would you do? What would you like to see? And I highlighted a lot of those, not every single one, especially the ones that were fire the sky or something like that. But there were a lot of good ideas and some of them were difficult. And it wasn't, "We are going to do this, we're going to do this." "It was, here's some ideas that we have that we'd really like to pursue." And the employee recognition was the first one. I said, this is something we are going to do.
And from there, let's look at some other things, I think performance evaluation things that we've really failed to use that as a tool to advance employees, we talked about some promotional opportunities, some internal things that we could pursue more. But really the employee recognition piece was the one that came at it and said, we need to do a better job of recognizing outstanding performance or even recognizing folks who are doing their jobs in light of really difficult circumstances and celebrate their achievements. And it doesn't need to be a giant pop and frill and circumstance and a parade down main street. It just a recognition of, "Hey, you were recognized for a job. Well done, thank you for what you do and what you do for the County." That's it. And I think that goes a long way. That's where the impetus of our employee recognition program started was with that survey and the results of that.
Are those employee recognition programs kind of in progress now that we're a few months removed? And if so, are they going well? What was the feedback been since? What kind of progressed since the initial survey and response happened.
We're almost a year in now, since that we did our first employee recognition. The employee recognition program, it's a monthly program it's really designed just to... It can be either an internal or external nominator. If a resident calls and in and says, "Hey, this road crew did a great job at fixing my road. I called them out, they responded quickly. They were professional. They were courteous. They did a great job." That's a great opportunity to recognize someone. If someone comes in at the front counter and gets good customer service, we can recognize that. But also internal, if I've nominated a few folks where I've asked for information, "Hey, my team and yeah?" I'm the boss. I can make that request and they generally do it right.
But if they do it professionally, they get me great answers, they exceed my deadline, I want to recognize that. And it's not hard to do when you put your mind to it. And we're also overloaded and busy that sometimes it's hard and it's understandably so, but we have another role especially as managers and leaders that we need to recognize the great work and it's also, let me be honest here it's a little self-serving right. It can do both. If we recognize our outstanding performers and they continue to do great work and they feel more empowered and they do better jobs as a result, our organization performs better. And by de facto, by default, it reflects better on me. And and I'm certainly, that's not the primary reason, but it can do both.
It's both program to really improve morale. And through that, we improve our performance. And so we've been doing the program now, like I said, this is, I think we're coming up on our ninth or 10th month. It's pretty informal, like I said, we get requests, we don't do winners, it's just nominees. And so if there's three or four or five or six people, or combinations of teams and individuals, I send out an email at the end or at the beginning of each month, we provide certificates. I was doing YouTube videos for a while. Those were fairly popular, but they took a lot of time. And so we've tried scaling back the YouTube videos, introducing those but still do everything else. We push it out on our social media pages. We recognize in those individual performances. The certificates that hang... That they're able to kind of see that tangible benefit.
We don't do big awards or anything like that. It's really just that. And to speak about the program the first couple of months were tough. I had to frequently send emails, Hey, recognize your teams, recognize your teams. It was kind of a prodding sort of approach. But after about, I would say the fourth or fifth month, it started getting traction. People were thinking about it on their own and actually doing it without my prodding or input. And at this point now, I haven't had to send a prodding email, gosh, in five or six months. It's really generated and I think we're recognizing people, both internal and external people from folks in different divisions, whether it's... Especially folks who maybe don't have a visible job. Maybe they're an accountant in the back room somewhere, and they're doing good work, but they traditionally would not be recognized otherwise. And this program really recognizes those sort of folks. And so it's really gained a life of its own over the last year. We actually parlayed that into an annual employee recognition program for the department.
And part of that is our county doesn't do this. And that's no slider or anything.That's not a program that our county as a whole does. And so we decided to create our own saying, "Hey, we don't have to rely on HR or admin or anyone else. We can do this on our own. There's nothing that stops us from doing this." And so we had a holiday luncheon and potluck. We barbecued hot hamburgers and hot dogs. It was pretty laid back. And then I did a recognition. We had nine or 10 different award categories, and we recognized folks from different divisions and the work they did. And it was in a similar vein to what we're doing with the monthly, but it was an end of the year, look back and a recognition of the achievements. And I think when you, hopefully over time, these can continue and again, it's just a nice check in to go. It's not the parade down main street.
It's just that little attaboy that kind of can get you through a rough day or remind you that, "Hey, I am being recognized." And especially when it comes internally, when it comes from your peers who recognize work that you do, and beyond, maybe even just saying the thank you in email, the fact that someone took a few minutes to nominate you, I think it goes a long way.
And now to potentially make some people uncomfortable, the money side of this, whether you're the employee, who's happy not to take anything away from all those important things you just went through the recognition, the awards. But if I'm the employee, Hey, we're dealing with these fires, we're dealing with post COVID stuff. In addition to all the regular responsibilities, I'm killing myself here. I'm doing a good job. I really appreciate the data boy, but ultimately I'm over delivering, let's say, so we have to talk about compensation. That's not easy because there's, as we know, budgets are tough and it only goes so far. How have you handled that from the manager point of view when there are potentially many employees thinking this and definitely a chunk of them who have backed it up, and the evidence is there on the amazing job they're doing, but there's still that finite amount of resources to kind of dole out. When the feedback is, I appreciate all you're doing, but also I need some more money then how does that fit into the program?
Yeah, and I'm not one to shy away. And I think my teams here would recognize that is we face, it's a challenge. And especially in this market, in the recession came, I would fly internship positions and get PhDs applying for internships. The world was very much a buyer's market if you were in the public sector and not withstanding the recent changes with, and the great resignation is certainly exacerbated this and unclear how the economy's going to be moving forward. But we've had this record growth where our partners on the private sector can, whether it's in construction, whether it's in professional services, they have a lot more flexibility. And even amongst our peers, Butte County has some pretty challenging benefit programs that I think lag some of our peers. And so, for example, we had a 26% increase in health insurance this year, the way our program works is that's entirely born by the employees.
And so that's tough in particular, if you're a staff level employee who starting out, who maybe has a wife and a kid or two, and you're working is on the road crew, or you're a mechanic and you don't bring home your two incomes and it's tough enough as it is and then you have this burden of 26% increase in your medical, which can be... I totally get it. And so we're really limited in our ability. And we try to make the case and the county's going through a comprehensive class and compensation study right now, the results should be out literally in a couple of weeks, we'll know, by the middle of the year, if that's approved. And again, that's ultimately the electives decision. We educate and inform our electives on what's going on. And then they ultimately make the decision. A lot of that's out of our control.
There are things within my control. Number one is when you're that sort of organization and I hope folks that are listening to this recognized and can empathize with that, that makes these programs that much more important. Because if there's a slew of evidence that shows that a lot of people that aren't drawn in the public sector for the pay or the benefits, because we recognize that there's other places they can go that could potentially make more, it's the opportunity to give back and the opportunity to contribute. And we have that here, but if we don't recognize the work that people do and they don't feel valued and they don't feel supported, they're going to go elsewhere and with internet and with the opportunity to search jobs easily, the really the hand in an empowered employee with those skills, the world's their oyster, they can pick whatever they want. And so it's our job to make this a place where they go. I like working here. I might not make the most amount of money, but I like what I do here.
I feel like I make a difference. I'm valued by my peers. And I can't say we hit down on every mark, we do the best we can. And the other thing we do too, is we've had a lot of vacancies and so every time we do that, I try to look, how can we re-envision the position, are there opportunities for internal promotion, are there opportunities for internal recruitment, we've had a number of vertical moves in the last year. Probably a lot more than we have in recent years. I've certainly even shifted in my behavior, to be honest, I think years ago, I might have been more open it up and let the best person win, whether it's internal or external. And I've probably shifted a little bit and I think in a good way to a philosophy of, if there's someone here, let's not assume they can't do the job. Not saying I did that, but let's give them the opportunity. Let's set the framework for them to whether it's interim position or whether, it's a let's try the position for six months before we backfill the other one. Give them an opportunity to succeed.
Let's not assume that just because it's a little bit of a stretch or they haven't quite done this before that they're going to fail. Let's assume they're going to succeed. Give them the tools. And then if they don't then okay, then we'll reassess. And we have to be a little brave to do that. And I but I think when, when employees see that combined with everything else, it goes a long way. And like I said, we've had a lot of internal promotions and opportunities for folks to move up the ladder a little bit far more in the last year. And I think that goes a long way too. So again, we use the tools that we have that are available. Some of those, like just sheer bonuses or 20% increases, those are things that are a little outside our control and we recognize that. And we share that in an honest and transparent manner with the employees, but there are things we can do. And if we can pursue those equitably, I think that goes a long way when employees see you going that extra mile to support them.
Yeah. And there's plenty of studies that show that raise, obviously people love it and it helps, but it's kind of temporary that high fades out pretty quick. And it does not replace the day to day, "Hey, I'm appreciated here. People understand what I'm trying to do and how I'm helping." They're parallel but it's for sure not one or the other.
And I think each person has to answer that metric on their own. And each person's driven by motivators that are slightly different and that can change. But again, we don't want to trace some sort of Pollyannish, view of what we do. We do tough work and we're held accountable and it's visible and it's hard. And if it was easy, anybody would do it. But it's just it's that little moment, it's little spaces in between trying to just, "Hey, nice job, thank you for what you do. You are appreciated." We could, there's always, I look at places all the time and I go, man, I wish I could do more. The limits of my job and only so many hours of the day but I think some of the things we have done have made a difference and I'm proud of our team and the work they've done and the work they've accomplished.
And I want to continue to support them in that way. And so, as long as I'm here, I'm fully committed to this. I think throughout my career, I've been really pleased with how this is rolled out. I wish I've done something like this elsewhere. But it's part of the gig. You learn these things and you try different things. And I think wherever I end up or whatever I do, this will be something that'll be through the rest of my career. These efforts will continue.
Well, Josh, thanks for sharing Butte County's employee engagement story. The survey template you used will be available on icma.org on the podcast webpage. And we'll also link it on Apple, Spotify, wherever the listener's platform of choice and listeners while you're there, please leave us a review and rating. You can also message us directly at podcast, icma.org with topic ideas, or if you have a story that you want to come on and share with your peers at Local Government, we'll be happy to help you. Josh, thanks again for your time.
Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Joshua Pack, Director of Public Works, Butte County, CA
Massive wildfires and other challenges large and small over a few years created a difficult working environment in Butte County, CA. Their director of public works, Joshua Pack joins the show to explain how an employee survey based on a genuine desire to listen and improve went a long way to gather honest feedback and respond with employee-driven changes.