Beyond FEVS, agencies trying to combat federal ‘survey fatigue’

Rather than only sending out surveys and hoping for good FEVS response rates, agencies are also looking at qualitative ways to hear back from federal employees.

On top of filling out the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) each year, many employees also get requests to take pulse surveys and other workforce assessments to offer their feedback to agency leadership.

While the information is important for agencies to better understand their workforces and make changes, agency leaders like Kimberly Patrick, principal deputy assistant administrator for mission support at the Environmental Protection Agency, are still trying to balance workforce data collection with what’s becoming “survey fatigue” for many.

“For our employees, if you ask them, we probably evaluate too much, because it seems like we’re doing a survey every five minutes,” Patrick said during a panel at a June 6 event hosted by GovExec. “We do a combination of polls and surveys — and of course, rely on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.”

But rather than just sending out countless surveys and hoping for a decent response rate each year on FEVS, Patrick said EPA also incorporates other, often more personal, ways to hear back from employees on what matters most to them.

“We do a lot of fireside chats, town halls — you name it. The opportunity to get employee feedback is consistent and constant at EPA,” Patrick said. “And that runs from the most senior level, all the way down to organizational levels. There’s that push and that support to constantly know the pulse of what’s happening with our employees.”

On top of collecting employee feedback, Patrick said the next crucial step is actually using the workforce data to make key changes. In one example, EPA had noticed a trend that recent agency hires were feeling overwhelmed with the amount of new information they receive day one on the job.

“Some of the feedback we were getting from some of our folks who were onboarding was, ‘Wow, I get bombarded that first day was so much information that I don’t know what just happened to me,’” Patrick said. “So, we initiated a 365-day onboarding experience where you’re not left alone. You still get hit that first day because we’ve got some legal things to take care of to get you in — but we don’t then leave you alone. There are opportunities throughout that entire first year of onboarding where there’s training, where there are opportunities to work as a cohort with the folks you came in with. We care for you throughout the entire year, so it’s not compressed.”

Slow but steady changes at USCIS

Leaders at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, similarly use both FEVS and pulse surveys to assess their workforce’s engagement and satisfaction.

But for Shannon Wheeler Roberts, USCIS’ communications and innovation program manager, voluntary one-on-one interviews and conversations with employees are another route that’s just as important to consider when making workplace changes.

“A big thing that we focus on is qualitative research,” Wheeler Roberts said during the June 6 panel. “We actually conduct what we refer to as an ‘organizational assessment’ — and we find that the people who are coming and speaking to us, they’re not just coming to say, ‘I want to fix this thing.’ They’re also saying, ‘This works really well and you should keep it.’ We’re getting all kinds of responses.”

Using those responses from employees, USCIS then compiles the results in combination with survey data from employees. Then, Wheeler Roberts said her team identifies themes and opportunities for changes throughout the workforce to share with agency leadership for consideration.

“It might be about addressing burnout, it might be about bringing in vicarious trauma training or compassion fatigue programming,” Wheeler Roberts said. “We’re really able to leverage the employee’s words — their actual words and their voices — to feed that to the decisionmakers and help influence how strategic planning is done at our organization.”

USCIS, ultimately, is working toward a larger mindset shift for agency leaders, as well as managers and supervisors — and piece by piece, those efforts are starting to pay off.

“Culture change is very slow,” Wheeler Roberts said. “The first time we did an organizational assessment six years ago, there was a little bit of resistance to using employee data to drive change. But in the most recent iteration of it that we did a year ago, there were leaders lining up for the data and finding ways to use it.”

SBA looking at “employee-centric” approach

The Small Business Administration, in another example, has seen slow but steady improvements in its FEVS results for several years running. And in the last decade, SBA’s engagement and satisfaction score in FEVS has nearly doubled.

“I think there is a lot of work that has been done in that decade about not just seeing the results of the FEVS, but actually creating an infrastructure that takes that data, puts it through a committee that really is focused on changing the things that are identified as opportunity areas, and feeding that back up into the way that we work,” Peter Gorman, a senior product manager at SBA, said during the panel.

Gorman added, though, that he would welcome the opportunity for even more qualitative research on employee engagement and satisfaction.

“That adds the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ that they may be getting from our surveys otherwise,” Gorman said.

In some areas, the collection of that type of information already appears to be on the rise. For instance, SBA’s human resources department conducts qualitative interviews during the onboarding process for newly hired employees — including Gorman himself when he was hired just a few months ago.

Additionally, Gorman said SBA tries to take an “employee-centric” approach to improving the workplace experience. As one example, the agency has an action planning committee that studies survey data and other feedback from employees, and then comes up with ideas for how to target and address the issues they see.

“That’s the best approach to take,” Gorman said. “Give folks the tools and the power to solve for their own problems, because from the 5,000-foot view, it’s really hard to be able to tell what would be effective, and what wouldn’t.”

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