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Lessons from 2 agencies rising the ranks in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

Nani Coloretti, deputy secdretary, Housing and Urban Development Department

A 1 percent boost in overall employee engagement on this year’s 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey may not seem like much. But several agencies, including the last-ranked Homeland Security Department, made promising improvements in 2016.

Small agencies led the pack this year, as seven of them boasted double-digit jumps in their employee engagement scores. Seven large agencies also improved their scores by 4 percent or more.

The Office of Special Counsel, a small agency with roughly 130 employees, jumped 12 percent on employee engagement on the 2016 survey over the previous year.  With an overall score of 73 percent, OSC ranks 13th out of 40 small agencies.

The agency was particularly proud of this year’s results, considering OSC’s workload has grown exponentially over the past several years. But OSC employees recognize the work they do is important, said Associate Special Counsel Anne Wagner.

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“There’s a tremendous commitment on the part of OSC employees and staff to the mission of the agency,” she said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “That as a driving force in terms of morale is huge. If people feel like they can effectively accomplish what we’re here to do, which is to protect federal employee rights and ensure a safe channel for whistleblowers, they will do whatever it takes to meet that mission.”

OSC formed a working group at the Special Counsel’s request, with 17 employees representing each of the agency’s various functions, Wagner said. The group reviewed the agency’s 2015 results and then conducted individual interviews and additional, anonymous surveys with its employees to gather more information.

And for the second consecutive year, the Housing and Urban Development Department ranks as one of the most improved large agencies on this year’s FEVS. HUD boosted employee engagement by 4 percent in 2016, improving its overall score from 62 percent in 2015 to 66 percent this year.

Nani Coloretti, deputy secretary for HUD, said she and Secretary Julian Castro set a specific vision for employee engagement when they arrived at the department about two years ago.

“We actually have action plans that speak to our vision, and we have put standards in all of our senior managers’ performance plans,” she told Federal News Radio. “They also pay attention — they were doing it anyway — but really kind of talking about this work all year round [helps].”

Both agencies said they made concerted efforts to look at the results of the 2015 survey, gather more feedback from their employees and use the data to make small changes that have made a big difference.

OSC, HUD say higher participation helps

Both agencies attributed their success, in part, to higher participation rates on this year’s survey.

OSC in particular made leaps and bounds on its response rate. About 92 percent of the OSC workforce took the FEVS this year, a 31 percent boost over 2015’s 61 percent participation rate.

Wagner said this year’s survey paints “a truer picture of employee engagement.”

“We made sure that there was constant communication going out throughout the agency,” she said of OSC”s strategy to improve the FEVS response rate. “We made sure that [Special Counsel] Carolyn [Lerner} … reemphasize[d] how much she wanted to hear back from people, that this was a very important priority for her. We emphasized that with the managers as well, to constantly reiterate with them that it was important for them to talk to the employees within each unit to ensure the maximum participation.”

HUD also improved its on 73.5 percent response rate from 2015. About 77 percent of the HUD workforce took the survey this year, though the 2016 rate was short of the agency’s goal to reach 80 percent participation this year, Coloretti said.

The department took a similar route to boost response rates.

“The way that we did it was by really talking about this at all levels,” Coloretti said. “It’s important for employees to hear that the secretary and the deputy secretary want you to fill out the survey. But actually it’s also important to hear it from your direct supervisor, talking about the ways in which we use the survey to try to make this a better place to work.”

Individual offices and sectors within an agency can only use the FEVS data if more than 10 people from those areas take the survey. Coloretti said her department made sure to clarify that point to its employees.

“It’s hard to take action on things when no one responds,” she said. “We were able to partner with one of our unions to get that message out as well.”

Coloretti and her staff also actively invited people to develop profiles on UnlockTalent.gov, the site where the Office of Personnel Management posts detailed versions of the survey results. About 500 of HUD’s 7,000 employees have accounts on the site, Coloretti said.

Listening and communication is key

Both HUD and OSC said they worked hard to improve internal communication among their top leaders, managers and employees this year.

For OSC, better communication started at the very top. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner made it a specific priority to make it known to her employees that their concerns were important to her and that she wanted to listen and act on them, Wagner said.

The agency also made an effort to send out more notes from senior staff meetings and status updates about the OSC budget and appropriations process.

Communication is also key for HUD, which is working to share stories about what employees are working on, Coloretti said.

After the department’s leaders reviewed the 2015 results, HUD set up a “switchboard” where employees could suggest ideas. The department implemented 144 ideas since Coloretti arrived a year and a half ago.

“We are putting in place better communication tools, better data tools across a series of programs, and we’re also improving processes,” she said. “So when the field needs something from headquarters, we are actually mapping out those processes and making those things happen quicker.”

Better communication is also helping the department earn more confidence with its leadership.

“A lot of engagement should just be happening year round,” Coloretti said. “It has to do with communication, both communicating priorities out, but also telling people why you are focusing on something or why you are doing something. I think the secretary does a really good job of this, because he is just a very accessible kind of leader. In other words, if he goes out to a community and is visiting, he always makes time to stop at the field office or the regional office, and he also makes time to tell people that he did it and what happened and what he heard.”

Yet Coloretti said better communication also factors into areas where HUD feels it can improve. Many HUD employees remain unsatisfied with their ability to get a promotion or training within the department, she said.

HUD has been adding more opportunities for its employees to rotate physically or virtually with other offices at the department to better help them gain more skills and unique experiences. The goal, Colorettti said, is to help HUD employees build their skills so that they’ll be competitive when internal promotions come along.

The department is actively trying to communicate with its employees about those opportunities, and it’s also using its communication tools to explain when and why those opportunities are not available.

“It can be disappointing to not get the promotion that you wanted or thought you deserved, but it can also be a good exercise to be curious about that and try to always better yourself,” Coloretti said. “[It’s about] really try[ing] to communicate a lot about training opportunities. We asked for more transparency across the agency on training and travel, because I kept hearing about that in the field. Always help people understand what’s available and why.”

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