Strategic Federal Human Capital Management – Employee Engagement



As federal Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCOs) embrace high-impact initiatives to help agencies meet their missions and HR needs for the 21st century, federal employee engagement continues to appear at or near the top of their lists for short-term fixes. Given emerging technology that is replacing the outdated legacy software of the past decade, engagement is rightfully recognized as an area of high need and accompanying strong ability to correct.

As discussed in a previous post, federal human capital leaders are recognizing that their agencies will benefit from a two-tiered plan of attack – long-term strategic initiatives and shorter-term tactical initiatives that can bring numerous benefits quickly. This approach takes advantage of existing capabilities while allowing for an evolutionary growth to also meet long-term goals.

The Federal Employee Engagement Problem

For several years, federal employee engagement has been a problem area for agencies. The most recent data from the Office of Personnel Management’s (OMB’s) 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Results bears this. The survey results are trending in the wrong direction, with employee morale worsening every year. At the heart of the problem is employee engagement and leadership.

The problem is so critical that it has been elevated within the federal government and the current administration. There was a December 2015 directive from Shaun Donovan, director of OMB, to all federal agencies that outlined a series of steps for agencies to take to address employee engagement and leadership problems. The directive stated that “the federal workforce is the crucial driver of mission success. We believe that employee engagement is a leading indicator of performance and should be a focus for all levels of an agency — from the front line employee to the agency head. Employee engagement is not only a Human Resources function, but a cross-cutting leadership effort that is directly tied to mission success.”

One of the most challenging aspects of employee engagement is that it can be difficult to understand the root of the problem. Employee morale can be bad and the general cause is poor engagement, but poor engagement can be tied to one or more factors, including:

  • poor management and leadership
  • insufficient feedback and manager-employee interaction
  • poor alignment of individual goals with team and agency goals and mission
  • lack of recognition
  • integration of poor performing employees with high-performing employees.

Employee engagement is a hot topic across all industries and organizations of all sizes. This is understandable, as the evidence of a highly engaged workforce have been corroborated in numerous studies.  It’s especially challenging in the federal workforce, where agencies struggle to attract and retain millennials and deal with increasing retirements.

Improving Federal Employee Engagement: Two Areas of Focus

As part of our collaborative work with numerous federal agencies, Acendre has developed a streamlined approach to help agencies improve employee engagement. This approach, which can be implemented in stages, goes beyond basic, yet critical, employee engagement, and strives to build a culture of high-performance throughout the agency. In a nutshell, the approach is a two-step approach:

  • Employee engagement
  • Building a culture of high performance.

This cultural change broadens the perception of what many focus on when attempting to improve engagement. By building and sustaining these cultural improvements, employees and managers help drive performance improvements not only among their teams, but boost overall agency performance as well.

Acendre’s blueprint for improving federal employee engagement utilizes data and people analytics to augment the “people interaction” piece of employee engagement. People analytics allows agencies to glean the information that spots trends, identifies opportunities and calls out problem areas for correction. A key area of focus and expertise for Acendre is business intelligence and analytics to help agencies become more data-driven in their culture and decision making. Identifying opportunities to improve employee engagement and leadership is a key component of this. The importance of data and analytics to federal human capital initiatives will continue to gain momentum.

Federal Employee Engagement — Employees

Employee engagement improves organizational performance, stemming from improved productivity, improved work quality and higher retention rates. If agencies can improve employee engagement, it reasons that it will be better positioned to meet its mission.

Improving employee engagement requires the commitment of leadership and management. If managers are not willing to talk to, listen to, meet with and generally interact with their employees, improving engagement is unlikely. Today’s employees, particularly millennials, want much more than to simply show up and receive a paycheck.  For federal employees, that means they want to be excited about their agency’s work and want to make a difference. They want to enjoy and trust their co-workers, and they want to be kept abreast of agency plans.

There are some logical steps to begin to improve engagement.

These include ongoing communication and engagement. That means employees and managers will be best served by listening and talking to each – and sharing ideas. It means being open and removing fear an employee might have of expressing a concern or presenting an idea. These are not necessarily easy, but they are logical, obvious steps.

However, there is another less obvious yet still critical piece of the engagement puzzle – data.

Used properly, data can lead your agency to improved employee engagement, which everyone agrees is imperative. Rich Hein, Managing Editor of CIO.com, puts it bluntly: “let’s face it, if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it, and if you can’t manage it then how can you improve it? The time has come for organizations to start giving engagement the focus it deserves.

Hear that, federal HR leaders?

If you are taking the logical steps to improve communication as outlined above, how can data help? It provides immense insight to determine if what you are doing is working. It can answer numerous questions to show how you can further improve employee engagement and the manager-employee relationship.

Such as:

  • What is the optimal frequency for employee-manager interaction?
  • How often is the employee receiving feedback?
  • How is the interaction and feedback impacting the employee’s morale and performance?
  • Do employees like their co-workers?
  • Are employees receiving the recognition they feel they deserve?
  • Do employees think they are doing important work?
  • How do employees feel about their team?
  • How do employees feel about their value to the organization?

These are just a few of the questions that data will provide insight to agency leadership. By acting on the data, further improvements can be made.

Federal Employee Engagement – A Culture of High Performance

With employee engagement improved, your agency will be in a position to embrace a culture of high performance.  Again, data leads the way, providing answers to questions such as:

  • Which managers have the most engaged employees? The least?
  • Is there are a common thread or specific traits of good and bad managers?
  • Are the managers interacting enough? Too much?
  • Are manager helping employees develop?
  • Are managers aligned with organizational goals?
  • Why do some teams and agencies have better engagement and better morale than others?
  • Which people should be considered for a management track?
  • What motivates employees
  • What are the expectations of employees and are they aligned with management and leadership?

With this wealth of data in hand, and a resolve to change, agencies can embrace and implement a culture of change. Ongoing communication, analysis of what is working and what is not working and a discipline to improve the organization from top to bottom will bring this change of culture. A performance culture requires discipline and never-ending attention to what the data tells you. But the results are hugely beneficial, with a renewed sense of purpose, excitement and motivation for everyone.

The result of ongoing engagement ensures that commitments and expectations are clear. This proactive employee engagement cuts off ambiguity before it causes problems such as a lack of focus or misdirection by employees. Everyone is truly engaged in the agency’s performance and strives to achieve organizational and mission success.

From Engagement to Strategic Success

As federal Chief Human Capital Officers and their teams look to build a strategic framework to address their agencies’ HR needs, short-term, high-impact initiatives present opportunities to institute valuable changes that can change the course and performance of their organizations. Employee engagement is one high impact area where large payoffs can be realized in the near term, with minimal investment and disruption. While it is a single field of focus, it is a critical piece of a complete integrated talent management strategy.



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