The state employee engagement problem

Here’s a fascinating bit of information we just learned from Bob Lavigna, the director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement at CPS HR Consulting.


In a survey, the new institute did of employees in local government, state government, federal government and the private sector, there were – not surprisingly – significant differences in the level of employee engagement.


All in all, the private sector had the edge on employee engagement with 44 percent of its employees engaged compared with 38 percent in the public sector. This is roughly parallel to other surveys in the past that have looked at engagement, which is, effectively, the opposite of burnout. As we recently wrote in Governing, “It means employees feel a connection with the mission of the organization, are proud of what they do, and will devote themselves to making sure the organization succeeds.”


But what really intrigued us was the breakdown of employee engagement at different levels of government. It turns out that if you separate local government out, employees’ level of engagement is equal to the private sector at 44 percent engaged. The federal government brings down the public sector average somewhat with just 34 percent engaged. But the real problem group is the state employees with only 29 percent engaged.


Although the extent of the difference was a bit shocking to us, the general direction parallels what we’ve talked about over the years. We used to conduct hundreds of interview each year with local and state government officials in the “Grading the States” (also cities and counties) effort at Governing magazine (funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts) and in the predecessor effort at Financial World.


The two of us would often remark that local employees seemed happier and state employees more downtrodden. Our theory: At the local government level, employees see the direct results of their work, and they are more in touch with the citizens who benefit from services.


We asked Bob Lavigna for more clues into the difference in the different sectors. He mulled over a few possible reasons — criticism of government that doesn’t resonate as strongly at the local level; state budget cuts and possibly less attention to engagement at the state level. He noted that the federal government has emphasized the importance of employee engagement for a decade and has continually conducted government-wide employee engagement surveys. Many local government also do employee surveys as we wrote about some months ago in Governing.  (The message of that column was that doing the surveys was just a first step, governments also have to respond to the results.)


Employee surveys are far less common on the state level.  Lavigna: “Our research shows that only seven states have conducted statewide engagement surveys. If you don’t have data on the level of engagement, it’s hard to focus on it. You can’t improve what you don’t measure.”


He added that  “leadership and managing change” were the top drivers of engagement across all sectors. “I think there is a message for states in this finding.”


The CPS HR Institute survey was conducted in the early summer of 2016 and matched the U.S. population on key demographics. (Teachers and members of the military were excluded.) About 2,000 individuals were sampled. The full results of the engagement survey, which will be repeated annually, will be released later in March.

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