5 Ways The President s Management Agenda Misses The Mark On Federal Workforce Engagement

On my favorite radio show, they play a game called “What Year Was It?” The DJ shares 3 or 4 notable happenings from a year in history, and listeners guess what year those events occurred. It goes like this… In what year did these things happen?

1. “How You Remind Me” by Nickelback was Billboard’s hottest song on the radio
2. Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” won the Oscar for best picture
3. With $103.9B in assets, WorldCom’s bankruptcy became the largest ever filing in the United States
4. The Office of Personnel Management began administering what is now known as the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to measure the engagement of the Federal workforce

If you guessed 2002, congratulations! It’s hard to believe that it’s been 16 years since employee engagement became a hot topic for the Federal workforce, but with engagement’s prominence in the recently released President’s Management Agenda, it’s clear that engaging the Federal workforce will continue to be top of mind, at least for three more years.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s ambitious goals for improving employee engagement misses the mark in some important ways:

1. While the PMA emphasizes performance improvement, it fails to push agencies to make direct links between improving employee engagement and driving individual and mission performance – there is plenty of research demonstrating the relationship between improved engagement and organizational performance.

OPM should require federal agencies to take two decisive actions:
a. document the anticipated impact that improving employee engagement will have on individual and mission-driven outcomes, and
b. develop evaluation plans for gauging progress.

2. Improving engagement for engagement’s sake is a noble but hollow effort. It can and will only lead to short-term changes. Without creating a virtuous cycle of increased engagement leading to increased performance, which then sustains increased engagement – employee engagement will simply remain a “nice to have” feature of Federal workplaces. This will cause the importance of employee engagement to diminish overtime, as “more important” mission priorities arise.

3. Tim Kuppler, founder of CultureUniversity.com, and I have written extensively in Changing the Culture of Government and Beyond and the Fall Edition of Armed Forces: Comptroller about the problems with focusing on employee engagement (and other climate measures), instead of getting to the root cause of challenges in organizations driven by culture.

Many of the presenting symptoms of malaise in the federal workforce are the result of deep seated behavioral norms that won’t be changed by focusing on surface level measures like engagement. The PMA was a prime opportunity to introduce new methods and measures that can help federal agencies begin to achieve meaningful shifts in their culture leading to improved engagement, improved mission performance, and higher quality citizen services.

4. Despite naming engagement as a priority, the timelines embedded in engagement initiatives don’t really suggest that agencies need to put a focus on it. One initiative allows agencies three years to drive a 20% improvement in engagement for their “bottom 20%”. This lofty, long-term improvement goal runs counter to the theme of “agile” that is pervasive in other parts of the PMA.

The Administration should be looking for ways to demonstrate progress in much shorter timeframes, like 90 days. It’s true that making significant changes in organizations can be a lengthy process, however, taking a more agile approach that starts with leadership alignment and specifies achievable, short-term changes that drive performance will produce more sustainable results.

5. The FEVS is a great tool for measuring employee engagement and other important human capital metrics on a year-over-year basis. OPM has done good work to continuously evolve and improve the survey. But, as a management tool for federal leaders, FEVS has some significant gaps that aren’t acknowledged or solved by the PMA.

Improving employee engagement requires a framework for more and better real-time data collection on key indicators of employee engagement, culture, and performance. Leaders need access to more near real-time indicators of behavior change in their organization, so that they can make decisions about course corrections needed in their efforts to improve engagement and build culture. OPM should work with experts in the federal contractor community to provide agencies with new tools for measuring engagement and performance more frequently so that improvement efforts can be tracked and modified in a timely manner.

The Federal workforce is one of our nation’s most important assets. Their commitment to service and dedication to delivering mission-focused outcomes and high-quality citizen services is the key enabler of an effective and high performing government. The Administration should continue to focus on improving the Federal employee experience, and with a few improvements to the approach in the PMA, meaningful and sustainable improvements to engagement, culture, and performance of the Federal workforce is within reach.

After 16 years of working on engagement in the Federal workforce, as I suggested in a previous workforce trend article, all signs suggest that 2018 will become the year where agencies shift to focusing on building organizational cultures that drive individual and mission performance and increase engagement.

Written by:
Tim Bowden
Human Capital & Human Resources



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