Employee Engagement Surveys Are Only Part of the Answer

Feb 22, 2018

Merely measuring employee engagement isn’t enough, concludes a NAPA white paper on Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance in Government.

While both the federal government and private companies measure employee engagement, these assessments only tell leaders and managers “what” is going on. Survey assessment data do not explain the “why.” If leaders want to replicate a success or turn around a problematic work unit, they have to dig deeper and use other sources of data.  These deeper diagnoses involve both quantitative and qualitative analyses.

A wide range of both public- and private-sector models show that an engaged front-line workforce delivers better services and results. These models can help inspire a new approach to improving performance in the federal government.  They typically have three elements:

  • An assessment element that is often quantitative and that identifies specific measures of organizational capacity, such as employee engagement;
  • A diagnostic element that is often a mix of quantitative and qualitative components and that helps interpret why an organizational unit scores at a certain level in its assessment; and
  • An action element comprised of strategies and plans that translates the diagnostic elements into changes in capacity and performance.

The Corporate Executive Board (CEB), now part of Gartner, noted in its 2013 study, Rethinking the Workforce Survey, that “engagement is necessary but not sufficient” and that “[t]he world’s best workforce survey programs capture information about universal and strategy-specific capabilities, and supply the data necessary for talent management and other leadership decisions in the context of the business priorities and strategies unique to their organization.”

Based on its observations, the NAPA Panel believes there is no silver bullet, no “one size fits all” approach, to improve the organizational health and capacity of federal agencies to perform their missions. Improving organizational health and performance will require different approaches for different agencies and operational units.  However, based on a review of research on organizational development approaches used in large public and private sector organizations over many years, the Panel was able to identify common design principles and elements that contribute to sustained increases in performance in large organizations. These principles and elements are detailed in its white paper.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Fellow, IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Chair, Standing Panel on Executive Organization & Management, National Academy of Public Administration.