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The state employee engagement problem: Follow-up comments

Last week, our blog featured the startling results of a survey conducted last year by the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement. It’s been a truism for a long time that public sector employees are less engaged in their work than the private sector. But when you disaggregate survey statistics, it turns out that the same percentage of private sector employees and local government employees are engaged in what they do — 44 percent. Federal workers (34 percent engaged) bring down the public sector average, but it’s state workers with a dismal 29 percent showing who most dramatically lower the government results.

This isn’t a trivial matter. Simply put, engaged employees do a better job. They’re proud of what they do and they are committed to seeing their organizations succeed.

In our previous post, Bob Lavigna, the director of the Institute, gave us some ideas about why his survey had disappointing results for state workers. To recap, he cited budget cuts, criticism of government and less attention focused on employee engagement at the state level. While the federal government has embraced the idea of employee surveys and the importance of engagement, state governments have been extremely reluctant to conduct statewide engagement surveys. The Institute has found only seven that do so.

We’re eager to get input from others on this question and asked two other human resource experts what they thought. Here are their comments:

Neil Reichenberg is executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and a well-known expert in workforce management.

“Interesting findings and I agree with the possible explanations. I recall after our 2012 engagement survey, I was invited to talk to a group of HR directors from state agencies. One person said that in his state, they could not undertake an engagement survey, since the governor’s office would not allow any employee surveys to be done if the results might reflect negatively on the governor. I asked the group if this was the case in their states and almost everyone said yes.

‘It’s always unfortunate when politics triumphs over good management.”

Sally Selden, the vice president and dean for academic affairs at Lynchburg College, is a highly accomplished management professor who is nationally known for her work in the human resources field.

“The results are fascinating and a little bit discouraging, yet not surprising given our political and economic climate.  I also think the lack of recovery from the 2009 recession contributes and the size of the organization matters. Local governments are smaller and more connected to the citizenry.

People within smaller organizations are typically better connected with each other, often an important part of engagement “At the state level, employees probably identify more with their agency than their state and are not likely to ever interact with their boss (the Governor) as compared to city/county employees.  Mayors and city/county managers are much more accessible and visible in the day-to-day experiences of employees “The pressure of tight/constrained budgets takes its toll on people and on organizations.  It is time to focus on public service and elevating it – it will help people connect to the larger mission and feel good about the work they do.”


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