White House to hold federal managers accountable for employee engagement

Senior managers soon may have more to fret about when it’s time to discuss their performance with the boss: Are they engaging employees and creating inclusive work environments?

Agencies will evaluate Senior Executive Service members and other managers on those soft skills, according to a draft, obtained by Federal News Radio, of a memo to agency leaders from the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and the Presidential Personnel Office.

The proposal is part of a wholesale effort to boost “Federal workforce engagement in order to achieve greater outcomes for the public and ensure Federal employees work in productive environments,” according to the memo.

The Obama administration set a goal of raising the governmentwide engagement score to 67 percent by the 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Yet the trend is moving in the opposite direction. This year, the score was 63 percent, a 1 percent decrease from last year. The rating is based on 15 survey questions that probe employees’ levels of motivation, opinions of their leaders and their relationships with their supervisors.

The memo says deputy secretaries should lead top-level reviews of their agencies’ results by year’s end. They also should ensure the performance plans for Senior Executive Service members include some metric related to improvement on the survey results.

While agencies would have “wide flexibility” to choose the criteria upon which to judge SES members and other managers, the memo suggests including specific questions from the survey.

That idea is raising eyebrows across the federal community.

“The survey is a tool. It shouldn’t be viewed as an end result or a goal unto itself,” said Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees and a member of a government working group that is studying ways to boost employee engagement, in an interview with Federal News Radio.

High-level officials at OMB and OPM echo that sentiment. But, for the first time, OPM has broken the survey results down for more than 20,000 federal offices, offering managers a more precise look at how their employees are feeling.

“We think this is a genuine opportunity,” OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert, a self-described “data geek,” said at a recent meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations. The survey, she said, “is only valuable when people use it.”

Yet the survey of about 400,000 civilian employees is not thorough enough to give every manager “data on his or her sphere of influence,” Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, told Federal News Radio. In addition, she said, the survey does not address the reasons why employees say they are less satisfied than in years past, which may lead agencies to misattribute employees’ frustrations to their managers rather than other factors.

“There are no questions that ask about the three-year pay freeze, government shutdown or federal employees’ being pounded on in the media and Congress,” she said.

A number of groups that represent employees have offered comments on the draft, although Cobert described it as “a little past the deadline.”

A few agencies already evaluate their senior leaders on employee engagement, although they do not make a direct link to the survey results. The Transportation Department, for example, has made employee satisfaction a goal in all senior executives’ performance plans, while giving the executives some discretion over how their individual progress is defined. As the department’s survey scores have improved, other agencies have sought to replicate its success, said John Palguta of the Partnership for Public Service, which ranks the best places to work in government. He said he supports the intent of the memo.

“I’d tweak it a little bit to make it clear that, in terms of setting metrics and targets, they have to be the right ones,” he said, adding “There’s a lot of good stuff here.”

The memo would direct agencies to seek their labor unions’ help in engaging employees. In addition, it says agencies should involve managers and supervisors at all levels in efforts to boost engagement. Such high-level attention to employees’ feelings and attitudes was unimaginable 15 years ago, Palguta said.

“When I was still in government, we didn’t talk about employee engagement. It wasn’t an issue,” he said. “Now every agency is thinking about how they can be more proactive.”

New resources for boosting employee engagement

While the Obama administration is trying to hold senior managers accountable for employee engagement, it is also highlighting governmentwide resources to help agencies make sense of their employee viewpoint survey results. Those include online databases and data visualization tools that offer multiple ways to analyze and dissect the survey.

The memo also instructs agencies to measure and track their progress four times a year with HRStat, a review process for workforce issues that resembles other data-driven evaluations promoted by the administration.

The working group on employee engagement, under the auspices of the Federal Labor Management Council and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, has visited agencies with the highest marks on the employee viewpoint survey, as well as those which have made dramatic improvement. It hopes to release more tools next month, said Dougan. Those include a data analysis guide to help managers make sense of their agencies’ viewpoint survey results, a template that would let agencies share success stories and a packet of “conversation starters” for focus groups.

“If we can improve communication throughout agencies, we’ll have a better engaged workforce,” he said. “It’s talking with employees, not talking at them.”

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