Whats key to the Obama administration being able to govern
effectively over the next four years? As I wrote in my last
article, the new administrations success depends not just
on the presidents ability to articulate public policy, but also on
to implement it at the department, agency, and program levels.
Doing so requires that the president and his key political
work through the federal workforce to advance the administrations
public policy agenda. That means engaging federal employees to
the goals of the new administration. Driving such engagement in
the federal bureaucracy is often difficult, however, because the
is far from an efficient, smooth-functioning machine. At the start
of this new administration problems such as inadequate staffing,
caseloads and a lack of clarity about [agency] mission plague many
federal agencies, notes Washington Post staff writer Ed OKeefe.
of these affect the basic operations of government. These endemic
organizational issues confront the new administration as it also
orient the federal bureaucracy to new White House priorities.
Given such realities, this article offers some advice to new
now assuming the reins of power in various federal agencies, who
effectively engage the federal workforce to support
President Obamas public policy goals.
Recent Survey Report Findings
Findings from Watson Wyatts 2008/2009 WorkUSA
survey report, Driving Business Results through Continuous
Engagement, offer many practical suggestions new agency
leaders can use to boost employee performance and
align federal workers with critical new agency goals
enunciated by the Obama White House. Although these
findings are based on private-sector research, they are
relevant for incoming administration political appointees
and senior government executives who want to
bolster the operating performance of government, engage
employees, and foster strong organizational transparency
The following subsections discuss the findings most
significant for senior government executives.
Employee Engagement and
Strong employee engagement correlates to strong
organizational performance. Backing up earlier Watson
Wyatt survey research, the 2008/2009 WorkUSA survey
found that highly engaged employees work at companies
with 26 percent higher revenue per employee, 13
percent higher total returns to shareholders over five
years, and a 50 percent higher market premium. The
data suggest that companies that increase employee
engagement levels can expect to significantly improve
their subsequent business (financial) performance.
This correlation applies to leading and managing
employees in the federal sector. Strong business performance
equates to strong organizational performance
based on robust employee engagement and productivity.
Employees who feel engaged with the goals of
their organization are going to be more productive than
less-engaged employees, as the survey findings suggest.
That engagement can translate directly into improved
organizational performance and an agencys ability to
accomplish its stated public mission. For this reason,
government executives need to focus on developing
effective engagement strategies and using them as a
lynchpin to strengthen their agencys overall operating
High- and Low-Engagement Employees
Research findings show that the differences between
high- and low-engagement employees are striking,
and these differences are clearly reflected in workplace
performance. Highly engaged employees are twice
as likely as less-engaged workers to be top performers
in their organizations. Three-quarters of highly engaged
employees exceed or far exceed job performance
expectations. Highly engaged employees also miss fewer
days of work due to illness. They are more resilient in
dealing with organizational change, and they identify
more closely with their company and its products and
services than less-engaged employees.
For political and career government executives, its
critically importantespecially in the early days of the
new administrationto focus on orienting their agencies
to the Obama administrations public policy agenda.
They should start by articulating a strategic vision for
their agencies that directly supports the White Houses
stated (and emerging) public policy priorities. This message
should include ways the agency will move forward
to implement new public policies and outline the roles
and responsibilities agency employees will play in that
processat the departmental, programmatic, and work
unit levels. Setting specific performance goals with regard
to these objectives is also critical.
In doing so, agency leaders should appeal to the
public-sector motivations of federal workers, emphasizing
the critical role frontline employees play in implementing
public policies and programs and stressing how
the activities of individual employees on the job can
directly impact the delivery of services and programs
to citizens. In communicating these messages, agency
leaders have a unique opportunity to generate fresh excitement
in frontline federal workers and create strong
employee line of sight to new agency mission goals.
Opportunities to Engage Employees
Employee engagement typically starts high (at the
point of hiring) and declines with tenuredropping
9 percent in the first year and more than 12 percent
over five years. However, there are many opportunities
throughout the employment life cycleduring on
boarding, goal setting and performance feedback, career
discussions, and elsewherewhere leaders can engage
employees and strengthen employee commitment and
Our survey research found that even the most engaged
and enthusiastic employees can quickly become
disengaged when they perceive a disconnect between the
employment deal presented to them during recruitment
and the deal in reality. Regardless of an employees
motivation to join an organization, research shows that
employees can be engaged, provided an organization accurately
communicates the employment deal up front,
sets realistic expectations during onboarding, and lives
up to the employee deal after the employee is on the
job. In short, engagement comes from delivering on the
deal regardless of what it is. Top performing organizations
know how to do this consistently, beginning at the
point of recruitment and hiring.
As the new administration begins its term in office,
President Obama has a tremendous opportunity to issue
a national call to public service and to make recruitment
of high-quality people to government a presidential priority.
A new report, Elevating Our Federal Workforce: Chief
Human Capital Officers Offer Advice to President Obama,
calls for the president to do exactly that.
To effectively recruit and engage young people,
agencies must appeal to their sense of altruism and public
service, and commit to speedy recruitment and effective
onboarding as never before. They should also use
the mission as a talent recruitment and employee tool.
(Ive written about these issues in other Public Manager
Once theyre actually on board in agencies, retaining
high-quality new hires requires agencies to take a
systematic and integrated approach to developing, mentoring,
and coaching young talent, giving people opportunities
for growth and professional development and
emphasizing the social significance of the work they do.
All of these things are critical to keeping new hires energized
and engaged on the job over the long term.
One particularly powerful thing federal executives
and managers can do to energize and engage employees
is to use career development and enrichment discussions
as an engagement tool and team-building strategy.
This can be a real job sweetener for employees at
all stages of their careers, but especially for members of
Gen X and Gen Y.
Our survey findings reveal that highly engaged employees
are eight times more likely than low-engagement
employees to say their organization does a good
job providing opportunities to advance. Theyre also
more likely to obtain information on career development
from supervisors, coworkers, and other sources in
the organization. Less-engaged employees, in contrast,
seek this information primarily through the Internet
and other external sources.
If managers show interest in the career goals of their
direct reports, its likely to improve their engagement,
bolster their morale, and contribute to their perception
that they are valued by their supervisor and considered
critical to the organizations success.
That said, career development discussions can be
tricky because opportunities for advancement diminish
as an employee moves up the organizational ladder.
For that reason, federal agencies may want to focus on
offering enrichment opportunities that enable people
to continue learning and growing and that keep their
jobs meaningful and interesting. Upward mobility is not
always the only way for an employee to achieve professional
fulfillment and career satisfaction, or even the
ideal, practical, or preferred way.
In some cases, federal managers and employees can
benefit from a segmentation strategy, which acknowledges
that not every individual is motivated at work by
the same things. Segmentation strategies can be used
in strategic human capital planning to attract, reward,
and retain certain kinds of employees with specific skill
setsor to help tailor the employment deal for an
employee on the basis of expressed personal and professional
needs, goals, and interests. Use of a segmentation
strategy is particularly practical in large organizations
with hundreds or thousands of employees.
Opportunities for Engagement
Organizational leaders need to find and leverage
opportunities to engage employees. As noted earlier,
Watson Wyatt Research shows that engagement levels
tend to start high and then taper off during an employees
early years on the job. For example, 71 percent of
survey participants who had been on board less than six
months said their company motivates them to do their
best work every day. That number drops to 57 percent
for employees on board six to twelve months.
Although some decline is inevitable, organizations
that identify opportunities and take action to reengage
employees at these times can minimize the decline.
Federal executives can use various techniques to effectively
build strong employee engagement. Ive already
mentioned career development discussions as an engagement
strategy (one that works particularly well in
building trust between immediate supervisors and their
direct reports). Table 1 lists other points of natural contact
between organizations and employees (both formal
and informal) that provide opportunities for leaders to
increase commitment, line of sight, or both, thereby
strengthening an employees level of engagement.
As shown, these opportunities can occur as a result
of formal human resources programs such as onboarding,
performance management, communication, and annual
benefits enrollment. All of these provide the opportunity
for an organization to reinforce key aspects of the employment
deal with employees in a very positive way.
Informal and impromptu encounters can also be
chances for engagement. An upbeat conversation between
an employee and a senior agency executive at an
agency or department function (an employee anniversary
ceremony or an annual recognition event) is one
Agencies that seize these opportunities can improve
the job experience for individual employees in compelling
ways and help cement strong bonds between employees
and an organization. This can be particularly important
in a federal government context, where people
are typically driven more by a sense of altruism and commitment
to public service than by financial incentives.
Other Strategies for Continuous
The 2008/2009 survey data show that the level of
employee engagement (or disengagement) in an organization
depends on how effectively that organization
does the following:
Ensures that senior leaders set the strategic direction.
Employees look to senior leaders for insight into
how well the organization is performing and what
its goals are going forward. Trust and confidence
are high when senior leaders clearly communicate
organizational direction, are active and visible, and
behave consistently with the core values of the
Focuses employees at all levels on the customer. Organizations
that focus on putting the customer
first enjoy higher levels of customer satisfaction
and loyalty. Moreover, they tend to develop
employees who are passionate about what their
organization stands for. Given this finding, federal
agencies that focus on serving the needs of their
customersthe U.S. taxpayer or some constituent
group in the U.S. populationcan effectively galvanize
federal employees to engage around their
agencys core mission. This is especially the case
when federal workers have the chance to see how
the results of their work impact downstream stakeholders
or consumers of specific government
services and programs (such as disaster relief).
Clearly communicates goals to all employees and links
individual goals to corporate goals. WorkUSA data
continue to show that communication makes a
positive difference in employee engagement. Effective
communication from senior management
directly connects employees to the purpose of an
organization, creating a sense of collective resolve
and identity that helps accelerate progress toward
goals. Specific strategies for enhancing communication
in an agency include
having senior leaders take an active, visible
role in communicating with employees;
explaining the reasons behind major decisions
and increasing the level of communication
during times of stress or significant change;
reviewing communication processes to ensure
that information flows vertically from the top
down and from the bottom upas well as
soliciting employee feedback, particularly from
those who disagree with current practices and
processes (providing opportunities for anonymous
ensuring that processes are in place to collect
feedback and that managers are trained to encourage
acting on employee feedback, showing trust in
employees, and engaging them more fully; and
measuring communication effectiveness
using a mix of metrics that report on activity,
awareness and understanding, and behavior
Federal agencies will continue to be challenged in
motivating and engaging employees, and aligning them
to meet critical organizational and governmental goals.
This is always the case in large organizations, private or
This is an unusually good time for federal agencies
to consider ways of engaging employees around their
agency mission and the growing list of national service
priorities being articulated by the Obama administration.
The new administrations priorities include everything
from environmental protection and awareness (the
green agenda) to education, government accountability
and transparency, national defense, developing alternative
energy sources, and serving the poor and unemployed.
All of these areas of public policy are potential engagement
touch points for federal agencies with current
and prospective employees, and agency leaders should
leverage them to the fullest extent possible. Meanwhile,
President Obamas election has itself energized many
Americans to now consider careers in public service.
Thats likely to encourage more new college graduates
to consider careers in government in the future.
As this article outlines, government executives and
political appointees have a wealth of tools at their disposal
with which to engage federal employees. Engagement
programs and interventions should be designed
with the unique needs of an agency and its workforce
in mind and with the goal of helping federal managers
and executivesat all levelsrecognize and leverage
opportunities to engage with employees. Handling such
moments well is the key to strengthening employee
commitment and line of sight.
To develop effective engagement strategies in their
agencies, senior government executives need to work
closely with their agencys human resources team to determine
engagement priorities and develop a road map
for effective long-term employee engagement and retention.
Such strategies should also be embedded into
an agencys strategic human capital planning process and
periodically reviewed and updated to reflect changing
employee needs, workforce requirements, and organizational
In the final analysis, high employee engagement
helps drive both individual and organizational performance.
Americans are looking for greater productivity,
efficiency, accountability, and transparency from government
than ever before, so effectively engaging federal
employees to meet the pressing needs of our country
must be a key priority of the new administration. Federal
employees, after all, are the very bedrock on which
the successful operation of the federal government rests.
They are also its everyday frontline representatives with
citizens and the key channel through which all government
programs and services are ultimately delivered to
the American public.