Increasing Employee Engagement in Government

What comes to mind when you think of government employees? People invested in obfuscation and bureaucracy? People more interesting in taking long lunches than in taking actions? People comfortably ensconced in easy jobs with great benefits, just counting the days to retirement?

It’s not easy to be a government employee these days. Whether you’re at the local, state, or federal level, it seems like everyone who is not a government employee has it in for you.

And yet we turn to government employees to handle the most important (and often intractable) problems of our society: educating our children, protecting our borders, building our infrastructure, researching cures for disease, protecting the environment, providing national parks, global diplomacy, managing the economy – the list is long. With these responsibilities, wouldn’t it be in our best interest to have the most highly engaged public workforce possible?

Employee engagement among government employees is below the national average for all industries, and is declining. Clearly, one of the biggest challenges facing government today is attracting, developing, and retaining talent. Just as in the private sector, there is a strong business case for why government should improve employee engagement. Research has shown – and continues to show – that organizations with highly engaged employees perform better than organizations with lower levels of engagement. Engaged employees are more likely to achieve strategic goals, have higher productivity, deliver better customer service, have more retention, better attendance, and so forth.

There is no silver bullet to help government agencies improve employee engagement. Like other organizations, each agency must:

  1. Plan and execute a valid employee engagement survey,
  2. Analyze the results to determine areas needing improvement,
  3. Take action, and
  4. Periodically re-survey employees to determine if engagement is improving.

With tens of thousands of government jurisdictions in the U.S., there is no single pathway that will serve all organizations to improve engagement. However, here are some initiatives that have proven effective for government agencies:

  • Build a culture of engagement. Again, according to Robert Lavigna, “Authentic engagement initiatives are strategic and authentic.” This approach elevates engagement to more than just another ‘program’.
  • Involve senior-level leadership. In nearly every study, leadership is a key driver of employee engagement.
  • Improve communications. Communications play an important role in keeping employees engaged. Agencies need to help employees understand what it means to do their jobs well. They need to go beyond making announcements, to explaining the rationale underpinning the announcement.
  • Manage employee performance. Employees need to understand their roles and responsibilities, receive timely and consistent feedback, and to be encouraged and supported in developing their capabilities.
  • Develop managers’ engagement abilities. No one is born knowing how to manage. Managers must be trained in how to develop engagement in their employees.
  • Create a more positive environment. Let employees know their opinions count. Improve the work environment by expanding flexible work arrangements, which have demonstrated improved engagement.

Recognize employee contributions. In government agencies, financial recognition may not be easy. However, other forms of recognition can be even more powerful than financial rewards. A hand-written note, public praise, and a thank you for a job well done can go a long way to improving employee engagement.

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