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When it comes to employee engagement, a small organization within the National Institutes of Health has a short and simple motto: “You speak, we listen, things happen.”
That mentality has guided the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) in recent years; it scored a 91% on the engagement index on the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the highest of any NIH institute.
“Our staff have to work in the system, but it’s incumbent upon leaders to work on the system,” Dr. Griffin Rodgers, NIDDK director, said in an interview with Federal News Network.
For Rodgers, that work on the “system” got easier thanks to a data tool the institute’s staff developed back in 2018.
The tool, known as the Employee Viewpoint Survey Analysis and Results Tool, or EVS ART, helps agency leaders quickly sift through the mountain of annual FEVS data from the Office of Personnel Management and clearly pinpoint bright spots and weak points.
OPM and the Office of Management and Budget have flagged EVS ART as a best practice to help agencies more quickly evaluate employee engagement — and make headway on their goals.
NIDDK has since changed the tool to account for new COVID-19 and telework questions on the 2020 survey, and the institute worked with OPM to launch a supplemental survey last year, which solicited feedback from trainees, fellows, Pathways students and others.
Now, the same team that created EVS ART is working on another tool, this time designed to create an intersectional analysis of employee perceptions based on the demographic data in the FEVS.
“In general I don’t think that across government people have overlaid that on the results,” said Camille Hoover, NIDDK’s executive officer.
Her team is creating a new tool will overlay demographic data over the answers on the FEVS. The goal, Hoover said, is to evaluate whether employees from different backgrounds have different perspectives about the workplace.
“We can add in education, supervisory status and we can drill down deeper to understand what different communities in our workforce are saying and are there different voices from different communities,” she said. “That’s something we just haven’t done before.”
Several agencies have said they’re craving more data that will paint a better intersectional picture of the federal workforce — how women of color or Hispanic supervisors and leaders, for example, are feeling about their agencies and jobs.
Current federal survey data doesn’t tell those stories, and some agencies can only collect certain demographic data about their employees on a voluntary basis, a point that Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget leaders have acknowledged is a challenge.
The president’s June executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility called on agencies to find new ways of collecting more intersectional data on the federal workforce.
“We are pouring over data to try to see are there things that we were only looking through one lens, and if we slightly the lens or if we overlay demographics on the data, is it going to tell us a different story?” Hoover said. “We are right in the midst of a discovery of this at NIDDK and across NIH as well.”
‘Practice talking about race’
Like many agencies, NIDDK has been on a journey of its own to improve diversity and inclusion inside the organization, an effort that starts with listening to its employees.
The institute held more town halls and meetings with the workforce and conducted pulse surveys to collect feedback from employees during the pandemic.
It also facilitated listening circles on race and social unrest, harassment against women in science and discrimination and violence against the Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
“As a physician I learned early in medical school that we have two ears and one mouth, and therefore we’ve been anatomically designed to listen more than we talk,” Rodgers said. “We talk a lot about listening today, and on a serious note the events of 2020 motivated us to engage in some difficult and ongoing conversations. We saw that we can learn a lot about listening with openness and empathy.”
NIDDK later held smaller discussions with employees, who talked about their own experiences with and perceptions of racism.
“This forum actually allowed us to practice talking about race, which is something that doesn’t normally happen in the workplace,” Hoover said.
The institute created a new civility, diversity and inclusion steering community, made up of senior leaders, junior supervisors, trainees and others across NIDDK. The committee is developing an NIDDK race and equity plan, as well as a new training curriculum on these topics.
Rodgers acknowledged NIDDK and NIH, like many other agencies, have a long way to go toward improving the diversity in its senior ranks.
Candidates applying for senior-level positions at NIDDK now must write a one-page diversity statement, describing their skills, experiences and willingness to engage in activities that foster inclusion in the workplace.
Hoover said NIH is considering this practice as one that it might apply more broadly across the organization.
To build a bigger pipeline of diverse talent, NIDDK is partnering with other Department of Health and Human Services agencies to conduct outreach to minority-serving institutions.
The goal, Hoover said, is to equip students with the tools and information they need to be viable candidates for jobs in the federal government. The institute meets with students, now virtually due to the pandemic, to walk them through the federal hiring process, the Pathways Program and career paths inside HHS.
“We do look at the demographics and the diversity of our workforce,” she said. “What we are trying to improve and increase is pulling in a more diverse applicant pool, so we make sure that we are touching a much broader population and communities of people to be considered for these jobs. When we go to minority-serving institutions, we’re helping them to understand that hiring system. It can really be very bureaucratic when you’re trying to become a federal employee.”