Assessments are more important than ever in the current government climate, which emphasizes accountability, transparency, and performance improvement. By providing actionable information that is needed to make wise and informed decisions, assessments foster accountability and transparency in workforce development decisions, as well as organizational improvement actions.
Executives, supervisors, and employees at government agencies often resist workforce assessments, including skill and competency assessments, training needs assessments, employee opinion surveys, and organizational improvement assessments. Their reasons are understandable and often based on first-hand experiences with assessments that were not conducted as effectively as they could have been. However, an effective assessment can provide information and insights needed to make informed decisions and effectively allocate limited resources, enabling an agency to better carry out its mission, thereby enhancing stewardship in government.
Here are five fears that agencies typically need to address when conducting workforce assessments, as well as some considerations and best practices for managing them.
Fear #1: Workforce Assessments Are Not Worth the Investment. Wed Rather Spend the Money on Other Employee Development Activities
Consider the following scenario: A large federal agency recently had a project management failure that received media attention. In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that a substantial percentage of the agencys projects were at risk of failing. Rather than mandating that all project staff take the same project management training, the agency designed a comprehensive assessment of project management competencies. It discovered that project staff was sufficiently competent on all project management tasks except one: project risk management.
The agency was able to save training dollars by providing project staff with targeted training, focusing specifically on risk-management techniques. An added benefit was that rather than spending lengthy weeks in training, project staff were able to devote more time to applying what they learned in a one-week project risk management course.
It is well-accepted by experts in the human resources field, such as Wayne Cascio and John Boudreau, because it pays to invest in employee development; however, the idea of strategically investing in employee development is still gaining traction. Workforce assessments are a decision-making tool for identifying where improvements are needed and informing decisions on how to best invest in the federal workforce. To ensure that the assessment provides the information required to decide on the employee development or organizational improvement efforts that are needed, Cascio and Boudreau recommend these best practices:
Begin with the end in mind.
The assessment needs to ask about the decision topics. For example, an agency that needs to improve project management processes should ask detailed questions about those processes.
Conduct a timely assessment and deliver timely results.
Many assessments can be planned and conducted in a short amount of time. Just as important, decision makers must be provided with the results before they make key decisions on allocating resources. Decisions should be made based on timely, not dated or stale, information.
Conduct a cost-benefit analysis, then take action based on the results.
When management makes decisions on hard facts, such as a cost-benefit analysis or a needs analysis, and shows that it is taking informed action, then the reasons behind the decision become transparent to employees at all levels. For example, a cost-benefit analysis for a training needs assessment or skill assessment should factor in savings associated with avoiding the cost of unnecessary training and keeping workers on-the-job, as well as performance improvements that result from the necessary training that they attend.
Fear #2: The Assessment Wont Address the Questions that Need to Be Answered
In this example, a department within a large federal agency had specific questions that it wanted answered about its workforce. Several off-the-shelf assessments were reviewed, and the assessment champion decided that those assessments would yield results that were not actionable. Instead, the agency decided to develop a short, topical customized assessment.
Results from the customized assessment were combined with off-the-shelf assessments to provide a complete picture of the agencys current strengths as well as areas that required improvement. Executives used the results at their annual planning retreat. Division results were shared with program managers and used in division planning to ensure alignment with the agencys plan.
Two main types of assessments exist: customized and off-the-shelf assessments. Off-the-shelf assessments typically examine such topics as employee engagement, organizational culture, and leadership and managerial competencies, to name a few. They can be quickly implemented by the assessment championin the human resources department or division executivebut arent always customizable. Some assessments can be customized, using a pre-existing question bank as a starting point.
When needed, assessments can be created from scratch, which requires up-front development time but results in answers to agency-specific questions that need to be addressed. Because a customized assessment asks unique questions, it may not be possible for decision makers to compare their agencys responses to a set of norms from other organizations. According to Allen Kraut, an expert on organizational surveys, the desire to compare results to norms must be carefully balanced with the desire to ask unique questions.
Its not always easy to identify the true purpose of an assessment. Often, organizations experience problems without having insight into the causes. However, taking time to conduct a baseline assessment of current problems or issues early in the planning process helps the assessment champion clarify the goal of the final assessment. It is often helpful for the champion to conduct short focus groups or interviews with decisions makers to clarify the desired information and refine assessment questions. When these questions are included in a pilot test, agencies are using a best practice that helps ensure respondents interpret questions as intended.
Fear #3: It Takes Too Long to Collect Assessment Data
In this situation, an agency wanted to conduct a work-life balance survey that would measure how its employees were faring from a wellness perspective. It hired an external supplier with an off-the-shelf work-life balance survey and was able to include 10 additional survey items that were customized to its main area of concern, which was the rollout of a new benefits program.
Within six weeks, the agency delivered the survey, collected data, and received an executive-level report explaining how employees perceived the new benefits program and work-life balance issues in general. The data were collected in time to influence some small but important changes to the next years benefits program.
Executives often need to make decisions quickly, and a workforce assessment may not be the first solution that comes to mind when they seek hard facts to inform their decisions. Managers sometime share this fear because they are the ones charged with getting things done and making day-to-day decisions.
Many assessments, especially off-the-shelf offerings, can be carried out quickly and efficiently via online tools that automate data collection, analysis, and reporting. Some upfront planning and investment is still required, but once the assessment goes live, the remainder of the process can proceed quickly. Still, its important to not cut corners, such as giving busy respondents enough time to complete the assessment, communicating the assessment purpose, addressing any concerns or questions related to the assessment, and communicating the results to all participants and other stakeholders.
Here are some additional considerations to ensure that the assessment timeline stays on track:
- Secure commitment from the executives who require the information as well as other key players involved in providing the assessment data. Top-down support is crucial to obtaining commitment from other stakeholders, such as employees who are asked to fill out the assessment and managers who need to give employees time to complete the survey.
- Consider various assessment options, and choose the solution that best meets the desired timeframe.
- Keep assessments short by focusing them around strategic objectives; only assess topics aligned with the agencys mission.
- If you must use a long assessment (50 or more questions), then provide a save-and-return feature so busy respondents dont have to find large block of time to complete the assessment.
Fear #4: Our Employees Are Already On Survey Overload
In this example, a federal agencys IT department conducted a monthly satisfaction survey of internal customers. The customers quickly became overwhelmed. It seemed like they had just completed one survey when the next one arrived in their inbox. Response rates declined as some employees simply deleted the survey; other employees began filling it out without thinking about their answers.
Although the IT executives reviewed the monthly results and made changes accordingly, IT customers didnt see the relationship between their survey responses and updates to their IT service. Moreover, the data could not be interpreted with confidence, and it became difficult for the IT executives to track changes in customer satisfaction. After a few months, the executives decided to institute a quarterly survey instead.
Resistance to workforce assessments can come from managers (my staff already fill out too many surveys) as well as employees (we are too busy doing our work to complete an assessment). Even if the benefits are clear, it can be difficult to make the case for yet another assessment. If the same assessment is repeated too often, response rates tend to decline as respondents lose interest. Another consideration is whether a sample of respondents could complete the assessment, thus distributing the burden.
One best practice is to have a single point of contact who can control how many assessments or surveys are distributed and to whom. The assessment champion would need to obtain input from organizational leaders, who should collectively determine the key workforce assessments that they wish to administer. The key assessments would address only the issues and concerns that leaders have identified and are able to influence.
The fear of being over-surveyed may mask related concerns, such as a lack of clarity on priorities. For example, busy managers who are accountable for meeting challenging performance goals will probably not rank the assessment as important as meeting their units goals. Once again, the importance of leadership communicating the importance of the assessment is a best practice that will help overcome the underlying fear.
Another related concern is that the employees asked to complete the assessment may not trust leadership, or they may not trust the reasons stated for the assessment. Managers must ensure that messages about the assessment are perceived as honest and straightforward. Having a thorough understanding of the intended audience for the assessment communication is needed to craft a message that will resonate with them.
A final related issue is that the assessment results may reflect poorly on individual employees, managers, or work units. Employees often think that the assessment results might hurt their career or lead to undesired changes. Again, the importance that employees perceive top-down communication as trustworthy is critical to success.
Fear #5: We Might Not Like the Results, So No Real Change Will Occur from the Assessment
This next scenario illustrates how spending time and resources to conduct an assessment that fails to result in meaningful changes is a strong and pervasive fear.
A unit in a small government agency had recently made improvements. Due to energetic and enthusiastic new leadership, business processes were defined, automated, and tracked. The unit considered conducting a process-improvement assessment to document its progress and support further gains. However, the head of the unit ultimately decided that any less-than-glowing results would counteract recent gains.
Research shows that large-scale organizational changesincluding reengineering, business process improvement, and culture change effortshave a high failure rate, and one reason for this is the failure to act on the gaps and weaknesses identified (Church and Waclawski, 1998).
The philosophy behind the assessment is key to its success. A constructive, improvement-oriented approach is more likely to yield honest data and lead to substantive improvements. However, stakeholders at all levels must be receptive to hearing positiveas well as less-than-positiveresults, and must be willing to act on them. Chances are that most employees already know the organizations strengths and the areas that could be improved. An assessment, when done effectively, is simply a tool for systematically collecting that information and presenting it in a constructive, actionable manner to executives and other decision makers.
Recognized assessment experts such as Cascio and Allan F. Church and organizational change practitioners such as David Nadler emphasize the importance of acting on assessment results. These experts view organizational surveys and other assessments as one form of an organizational change initiative. Simply asking assessment participants to provide their input sets an expectation that some type of change will result. Participants who take the time to provide honest responses assume that something will be done with the results. In fact, doing nothing after an assessment could result in more damage to management credibility than not conducting the assessment in the first place.
In federal government culture, concerns about shining a light on the agencys shortcomings is understandable; the fear is that negative consequencessuch as budget cuts, audits, or investigationscan occur if the assessment identified serious deficiencies. It is common for assessment stakeholders to engage in denial, initially rejecting the findings. Statements such as this assessment was not accurate or the sample was bad illustrate denial of the results.
Denial can be overcome by a skilled assessment champion who keeps key end users informed throughout the assessment process; actively communicates the assessment process to all participants and stakeholders; obtains a commitment from agency executives that the results will be used; and arranges for the executives to commit to an action plan at the beginning of the assessment process.
In addition to working closely with the assessment champion to communicate the importance of the assessment, executives are responsible for ensuring that assessment participants are not punished for providing honest information. Participants must trust that if they share their opinions, negative consequences will not occur and that the results will be acted on.
Research by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School revealed an unexpected finding: high-performing medical teams report more errors and mistakes than low-performing teams. This finding is explained by leader inclusiveness and psychological safetyhigh-performing teams tend to have inclusive leaders who help the team overcome status differences across team members, create an atmosphere of trust and safety, and engage in collaborative learning to improve their performance.
These same principles apply to workforce assessmentsemployees asked to participate in an assessment will only do so (and will only give honest responses) if they are confident that the results will not be used against them. Employees must be made to feel that it is safe to give honest answers. Further, top management must feel confident that their agency will not incur negative consequences, such as increased scrutiny or budget cuts, for good-faith efforts to identify areas for improvement.
Workforce assessments can enhance stewardship in government by informing decisions about workforce capabilities, fostering employee development, helping organizations to reach their mission, and informing a human capital strategy. Assessments can be instrumental in helping managers and executives in federal agencies make a case for employee growth and development, as well as other organizational improvements.
As Linda J. Bilmes and W. Scott Gould aptly note in their book The People Factor, a people-focus is needed for government to deliver value in todays environment. Without the information provided by workforce assessments, a risk exists that crucial decisions are made based on hearsay and anecdotes. Assessments can provide hard data that directly inform workforce development decisions.
Like any tool, an assessment can be done well or it can be done poorly. Fears may stem from less-than-positive experience with assessments that were not carried out well. But the reality is that, if done right, an assessment can provide crucial, required information in a timely manner that will directly inform decisions about workforce development, helping ensure that agencies are effective stewards of the public trust.