Employee Engagement is Not an HR Function

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Don Jacobson

Now that the White House has declared its intention to improve employee engagement throughout the Federal workforce, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be hearing that term a lot more in the next few years. And it’s an even safer bet that responsibility for this initiative will be tasked out to the human resources offices in most agencies.

While our excellent colleagues in HR do have a very important role to play in this undertaking, their ability to improve employee engagement is indirect. HR has a vital role in ensuring that leadership potential is a key factor in hiring decisions for all supervisory positions. They guide us through the toughest parts of the performance management process. In some organizations they help us get feedback from our direct reports in the form of surveys or 360s. And they can help arrange appropriate training, as needed. They do a lot, and it’s really important.

At the end of the day, however, employee engagement is driven by the climate created by each and every supervisor at the work unit level. It is all about the real world practice of leadership. The practice of leadership only improves as supervisors 1) choose to lead, and 2) do the hard work required to learn to lead. And that only happens one person at a time.

The good news is that every one of us, as Federal managers, has the ability to improve employee engagement now. We don’t have to wait for the White House or HR to tell us to do it. We just need to learn to create the right work climate for our teams—and keep improving our own skills as leaders.

What IS Employee Engagement, Anyway?
The term “employee engagement was coined in the early 1990s and later popularized by the Gallup Organization with the book First Break All the Rules…. Employees who are engaged are those who are highly committed to their work and apply their discretionary energy to getting the job done in the best possible way. In short, they put their heart into their work. After conducting and analyzing hundreds of thousands of workplace surveys, Gallup identified 12 key survey questions (the “Q12”) that demonstrated an especially high correlation between good scores and desirable organizational outcomes (e.g. high retention rates and profitability).

According to Gallup, only about 29 percent of U.S. workers are engaged.

Employee engagement is essentially another term for intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated employees show initiative, take pride in their work, and look for opportunities to make a difference. Basically, they put their heart into their work. In fact, many of the factors identified by Gallup’s research fit quite nicely with the drivers of intrinsic motivation identified by authors Daniel Pink and Kenneth Thomas. The Gallup model adds a dose of effective performance management for good measure.

In his classic book Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment, Kenneth W. Thomas identifies four drivers of intrinsic motivation: Choice (i.e. empowerment), Competence, Progress, and Meaningful Work. Daniel Pink’s inspiring book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us identifies similar drivers of intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

How Can I Get Some of That for My Team?
Employee engagement (or intrinsic motivation) doesn’t really need to cost much, if anything. It just requires that supervisors:

  1. Give people ownership over their work–and how they do it–to the extent possible.
  2. Invest in developing the capacity of their people to help them increase their sense of competence/mastery. (Hint: This doesn’t just mean training; most real learning comes in the process of getting the job done.)
  3. Connect their employees to a larger sense of purpose (the public sector has a huge comparative advantage on this one).

All of this needs to be accompanied by solid performance management practices by the supervisor, including effective delegation, honest feedback, and appropriate recognition/appreciation.

There are, of course, many other elements of leadership that are important to your effectiveness, such as modeling integrity, learning humility, communicating effectively, and many other factors that have been written about extensively. But the formula above is a great starting point for an effective leadership strategy because when your employees are internally motivated and they know their jobs well things tend to go really well.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

Good point! Leadership is the primary agent of engagement. Don’t forget though, that employees also have a stake in the engagement process. They need to take a active role in ensuring that they are as engaged as they can be. They can’t just passively wait for engagement to be bestowed upon them by benevolent management. Engagement is a two-way street and everyone needs to be rowing.

Even HR needs to be involved, but more as a consultant, sharing best practices and coaching leadership. Unfortunately, most HR folks lack the confidence and competence necessary to fulfill this role.

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Mark Hammer

“Engagement” is a rather flaccid concept advocated by consulting firms whose livelihood depends on persuading managers of their ability to create it. It is the you-too-can-make-millions-on-distressed-real-estate sales pitch of the management world (and Dilbert has nicely punctured that balloon on many an occasion).

What it really revolves around is the employee’s sense of “justified effort”. That effort comes from them spontaneously, and is either sustained by its many possible consequences…or not. It is not one iota different from what Skinner and others before him, like Thorndike, noted about any instrumental behaviour in any organism: the organism first spontaneously emits the behaviour, and the behaviour is either increased or decreased in frequency by its consequences, or lack of them.

If there is anything distinctive or unique about how that applies to people, it is that “consequences” can include not only things like compensation and recognition, but a sense of contributing, of accomplishment, of meeting abstract objectives that people have set for themselves. All the money and awards in the world won’t matter much to the person who set out with some benevolent social goal and 20 years later, things are every bit as miserable as when they started, maybe worse.

Neither management, nor HR, can create engagement. They can certain foster disengagement, but enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation for the work is something the employee arrived with…if you hired properly. Management and HR can either get in the way, or do their best to stay out of it, as well as remove any obstacles arising.

What gets perceived as “justification” – the consequences that matter to people and sustain their effort and interest – will vary by job, level, tenure, personality, culture, and a host of other factors. For some people, a decent paycheck and benefits, decent working conditions, pleasant competent coworkers, and a plaque every now and then are all the justification they need, but not everyone is like that. What “management” can do is give managers and supervisors the latitude to pursue those individual consequences of greatest pertinence to individual employees and provide them.

A quick reading of the literature on burnout (the diametric opposite of engagement) will reveal that even IF one gives employees a sense of control or ownership, increased capacity, and sense of larger purpose, if they are beating their head against a wall, none of that other stuff matters. I suppose providing those other things can slow down the approach to burnout a bit, but ultimately, if the anticipated consequences, if the justification, is not there, then the effort, enthusiasm, and commitment will have gone out for a long walk with that justification.

So what CAN management (or HR) do? For starters, the sorts of consequences, real and symbolic, that might be available depend on the role the employee will have within the job, work unit, and organization. The employees notion of their role, and the manager’s, need to be the same. If the employee thinks there are certain consequences waiting for them down the road that simply won’t happen, then expect trouble. To steal a phrase from Smokey the Bear: Don’t give disengagement a place to start.

By “role”, I don’t just mean job description. If the employee thinks their role will involve cleaning the waterways, but ends up working on 17th rewrites of draft reports to senior management about the state of funding earmarked for cleaning the waterways, they are miles away from their sense of purpose. Here I recommend checking out Adam Grant’s wonderful work on the sorts of “social contracts” and degree of connection to client outcomes that motivate employees.

I find many managers mistakenly believe that the causal chain works, beginning with engagement, leading to better client service. Really, engagement – the sense of justified effort – is sustained by a happy and appreciative client. Let your people truly serve the people they want to serve, and they’ll stay every bit as engaged as when you hired them.

And here we have one of the greatest sources of disengagement in government: employees generally cannot go the distance in addressing matters of public interest that they would like to. For some eminently realistic and sensible reasons, we are but tiny cogs in immense machines. And when one is 86 stages removed from any sort of real meaningful outcome (and making your manager happy, because their manager is happy, is not what you trained or signed up for) it is hard to have a sense that one’s efforts are, indeed, justified. The complicating factor in this is that many of the endeavours undertaken by governments have long time arcs, long enough that there is a strong likelihood of change in management and senior leadership before completion. And when everything that was important Friday afternoon is now back burner Monday morning because there is a new guy in charge (and some hydrants EVERY dog has to lift their leg on), or because the budget has been slashed, engagement can be very quickly undermined.

The sense that extra-role efforts are unjustified can be fostered by a lot things one never suspects. Jeffrey Pfeffer had a terrific article over a decade back, during the height of the “war for talent” craze, where he noted that always parachuting outside people in for upper-level positions would completely undermine any efforts by staff to develop/groom themselves for roles of more responsibility and bigger-picture thinking within the organization. Why bother if it is guaranteed to lead nowhere, right?

Again, back to this idea that employee motivation can be easily undermined by distal events; signs and omens that extended commitments on their part are not ultimately justified. A lot of that is completely out of the hands of HR, line supervisors, and maybe even middle management.

Do I have a punch-line? Yeah, I suppose. There’s not really all that much to being a great manager and having an engaged staff. Hire competent, enthusiastic people. Clearly depict the mission for them, the rationale behind it, where it fits into the grand scheme of things, and avoid all misunderstandings about role. Secure the resources and information they need to get the job done. Then get the hell out of the way. If they have a means to get done what they feel motivated to get done, and dumb stuff doesn’t get in the way of it, they’ll stay every bit as engaged as when you hired them.

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Julie Chase

Hi, I’m number 86 who Mark posted about in his comment. HR? I don’t even know their names, let alone ask them for anything. You see, we have a local HR, but then there is the bigger one in Norfolk. I don’t have a clue who they are either. Although San Diego HR sometimes gets involved.

Employee engagement, hmmm…. interesting concept consulting firms throw around beltway to pass along to us “minions” on the outside of the beltway. Speaking from outside the land of Oz….This is how it goes. I know “exactly” what I need to do the moment I walk in the office. Every day is programmed the same. Is the server up or down? That alone will give you a clue how the day is going to go. And with NMCI, it’s crap-shoot.

I learned early on that “enthusiasm” will only get you so far because there is a governing directive, order and/or policy in place, that will instantly make your “innovative suggestion” null and void. Until the directive, order/policy changes, this is way our organization will run. I will tell you that our MXX 1234.6 H -5 paragraph 2 has not changed since the late 1960’s. The way our organization runs now, most of what is in there is obsolete. Each WG has a PD and does not deviate from it, so sayeth the bargaining unit.

If a wide-eyed consultant ever came to our organization and tried to pump us up, they would get about 30 pairs of eyes rolling at them and looking at their watch or clock wondering when this guy/gal is going to shut-up so they can get back to work. They have learned long ago….this is nonsense and hokum. None of this “fluff” works in the “real” world. Not every government employee can be “innovative”, “enthusiastic”. The “mission” and the “processes” (yes, the process is king supreme) remain in force. I own my job in that I can go throughout my day backwards, forward, every which way as long as I get done what I need to get done. As a GS, I’m locked in….no bargaining unit to tell me I can’t work above my payscale. So I do it, when and only when my primary duties get done.

Yes, Mark’s statement, what is hot right now, might be cold tomorrow.

You take the good with bad, because out here…as Mark said, “a decent paycheck and benefits, decent working conditions, pleasant competent coworkers, and a plaque every now and then are all the justification they need”


My goodness where did this come from? Is it burn out? No, not burn out. Just pie crust promises made over and over again. Sequestration, pay freezes, hiring freezes, no awards, kiss training good-bye and no we don’t have money for office supplies oh by way 115,000 DoD workers are going to be cut. Buddy can you spare a pen?

Management and HR cannot create engagement. Management can only follow directives/orders/policies and guide his/her employees to do the same. HR, once you raise your right hand and on board, you never see them again. Our training office, does the best they can with money they get. However, it’s 50-50. 50% “mandatory” can’t get out of it training, and 50% fluff, i.e. “how to team build”, “how to deal with annoying co workers”, “how to manage the unmanagable”, “what is your emotional health”.

I am content in that I have a flexible manager, and great co-workers and 6 yrs until retirement. Once I realized that my focus is on my little organization. it’s workers and those we support, innovation seemed to take a back seat.

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Mark Hammer

Thanks for that, Julie. Ah yes, “my emotional health”. It was better before I was told I had to take a course on it.

And yes, we tend to forget that being good to one’s co-workers is also part of that sense of “justified effort”. If one is effectively distanced from those one is ostensibly providing service to, as clients, being good to those around you ascends in importance. The 12 Gallup questions (despite not being especially theory-driven) do broach on the quality of workplace relationships. Still, those who make a big deal about engagement tend not to talk much about “OCBs” (organizational citizenship behaviours) directed towards coworkers.

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Don Jacobson

I couldn’t agree with you more, Terry, that employees have a stake in the engagement process. In fact, the concept is meaningless unless they…engage. An employee who is passive about their situation is most definitely not engaged and not likely to become so.

And I quite agree with you, Mark, that one of the most critical things that managers can do is help his/her team feel connected to the mission. There are a lot of ways to do that–and to reach many levels of the organization. I’m sure you’ve heard the story (or variations thereof) about the janitor at NASA who said, upon being asked what his job was by a Congressman, that “I’m helping send a man to the moon.” The story is probably apocryphal, but connecting people to the mission is something done very poorly in many government organizations.

I also agree that managers can’t directly motivate their people. But there is a tremendous amount they can do to create a climate that is very conducive to high levels of motivation. (They can, of course, play a huge role in crushing people’s motivation, as Mark so aptly observed.

I should mention that I am not a big fan of the term “employee engagement.” (I have used it in two blog posts in the past 10 days because the term was used in the latest White House budget document.) I think the term has become overused, especially by consultants, and has consequently lost a lot of its meaning. I am, however, a huge fan of the feeling of employee engagement. I prefer to call it intrinsic motivation, and it’s the fire in my belly that makes me love getting up and going to work every day, even after nearly 24 years with the Federal Government.

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Mark Hammer

Myself, I prefer “justified effort”, because such a term alludes to a feedback loop. Intrinsic motivation is a suitable term, as is Deci and Ryan’s “self-determination theory”, but neither of these ideas really address how motivation is sustained over the long haul. I may be intrinsically motivated to attempt something I wasn’t coerced or induced to doing by external factors, and I may find something more interesting or compelling or even satisfying if it feels like something I dreamt up or decided upon, but you can be darn well sure I won’t keep at it unless the effort I’ve expended feels justified to me. Again, I direct folks to the literature on burnout, because all those folks who burnt out HAD that fire in their belly, but eventually felt their effort was not justified.

I say “justified”, rather than rewarded or reinforced, because I don’t have to assess rewards/reinforcements for them to have an effect on my behaviour. Justification, on the other hand, is an inference I draw. That inference may well be based solely on rewards in some cases or at some times, but my evaluation of those rewards, and what they mean to me, provides my answer to the question that all employees ask themselves about their work every day: Why bother? “Justified” also alludes to distal outcomes. Should I take courses or training that could position me for promotions within my organization? Well, not if those positions are always filled by outsiders; such efforts on my part now would not be justified five years hence.

I’ll introduce another term I’d like to popularize: merit maintenance. This is really and truly what the manager wishes to achieve. They have hired someone, based on some assessment of that person’s capacity, but also their apparent zeal for the job, and potential added value to the work unit and organization when they leverage that zeal into OCBs, organizational learning, and so on. That promise of “engagement” IS part of their merit at the point of intake. What the manager wants is to have as much merit from that employee after N years as they had on Day 1. That merit will be maintained if the employee perceives their efforts to be justified.

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Don Jacobson

Mark – I don’t disagree with you on that. In my post I said:

All of this needs to be accompanied by solid performance management practices by the supervisor, including effective delegation, honest feedback, and appropriate recognition/appreciation.

Getting that feedback loop right is fundamental to effective supervision.

The literature on intrinsic motivation says that extrinsic motivators (pay, recognition, etc.) mainly become a big issue when we don’t get them right. That’s been my experience as a manager (and as an employee). I think we all saw how that dynamic can come into play in the U.S. Government over the past few years thanks to wage freezes and sequestration.

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Mark Hammer

And I don’t disagree with you, either.

I do think, though, that much of what has been espoused by the management and management consulting world on the topic of…engagement…comes from the private sector, where the public interest, and long time arcs, or enduring social challenges or commitments, often play much less of a role. For instance, every element you have highlighted in your larger-print paragraph has to do with the “now”, or the “not too far from now”.

But what if I’ve worked on a social development, environmental, scientific, cultural, or economic project or initiative that I believed in very much, received every single thing you outline, but the project is cancelled or obstructed because of an executive decision somewhere? What if one is a well-compensated, fully delegated, explicitly recognized, honestly fed-back, social worker whose case-load is such that the progress he or she hoped to make in the world never seems to happen? What if one is a well-paid public defender, and you just see a stream of people end up worse off? What if you’re a bright young MPA working as a policy advisor in an area you care about, and none of your ideas ever goes anywhere?

I think it’s time for those who research the broader area of “public service motivation” (Perry & Wise 1990) to marry forces with those interested in employee “engagement” (or whatever term one wishes to use for the same general conceptual space), and develop a broader model of how merit in the public sector is maintained. The PSM folks tend to think about it primarily in terms of a deciding factor, as in “Person X selected this career path rather than that, or remained in their job longer, because of PSM”. But once people are in the job, how is that motivation sustained, and does it change over time?

I think this is particularly cogent at this time because we hear more and more talk about private/public partnerships as a way of making more efficient use of limited government resources. At the one extreme, we have the sense that the public sector focusses too much on the mission and process, without regard to cost (which IS an aspect of “the public interest”), and at the other extreme we have the sense of private interests maintaining their full gaze on profit margins, with much less regard for the public interest. So how do we sustain enthusiasm and regard for all aspects of the public interest – mission, transparency and unassailability of process, and cost – in those on the public OR private payroll doing the nation’s work?

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Avatar Image Daniel Augustine Brilliant

Wow, Mark and Don, thanks for this lovely, intelligent and thoughtful discussion. I have to say that while the principles that Don is espousing are true, they fit into a much larger, countervailing context of government work that Mark has outlined. While an individual manager can take steps today to pep up the troops and encourage engagement, those who care about actual public impact tend to become very jaded in government. Everywhere I look I see people who sigh and roll their eyes when you talk about the greater mission. I agree with Don that communicating the role that each employee plays in the greater mission is absolutely critical, if the work we do has no discernable impact on the clients we serve (the public or other agencies) then we will loose that part of what makes us tick. Long ago it was decided what processes we would follow and many of those were coded into law. No middle manager, no matter how skilled or well meaning, is likely to ever get a law governing their process changed. Upper management is usually utterly disinterested in process and more interested in funding allocations, willing to use their political clout with legislators only on big ticket issues. In the end you get a simple problem of incentives (which, as an economist, I consider to be behind the majority of human interactions). If people feel that their ability to effect meaning results from their work is limited, they will focus their attention on the immediacy of coworkers, process, and limited work unit objectives. That is a breading ground for short sighted, ad hoc, and territorial actions which only serve to reinforce the inability of the organization to effect positive change. There is a lot of talk right now about fixing stuctural problems with government, but not a lot of talk about making structural changes. As one of my coworkers put it when talking with some feds, “How can you expect us to stop working in siloes when you keep putting all the money in siloes?”

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Don Jacobson

Daniel/Mark – Thanks for your eloquent explanations. I work in government too. And yes, you are right. It is hard. Really hard. And it can be insanely frustrating. So how do we keep people from burning out or becoming jaded?

It was actually the frustrations and difficulties of getting things done in government that prompted me to create a leadership development site specifically for government managers, GovLeaders.org, almost 12 years ago. (You can see my explanation at http://govleaders.org/about-us.htm.) Government managers need to cultivate the patience and perseverance required to weather the frustrations you cite. My favorite part of GovLeaders is the Stories section, which has lots of exemplars of public sector leaders who made a difference.

I totally agree that it is devastating to work on something for a long time only to have the rug pulled out from you because funding was canceled or because changes in the political climate ended support for your project. Mark cites many examples of that. I have faced setbacks myself. Picking yourself up, learning from the experience and then trying to find some new way forward is absolutely critical. Is that hard? Gosh yes. But the day I become convinced that I can no longer play a role in making things better is the day I will walk away. I am unwilling to give up hope and I am unwilling to stop trying.

The best book I have seen about bouncing back from set-backs is Steven Snyder’s Leadership and the Art of Struggle.

I myself work in an organization that is extremely rule-bound. We have legislation that dictates how our work is done. We have thousands of pages of agency regulations that go into excruciating detail about how we are to apply that legislation. And we have computer systems that force us to do the work in a certain way. There are lots of things about the legislation and regulations we would love to change and simply can’t. But those aren’t our only options for making things better. As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to say, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

Even without being able to fix the legislation (and I’m not saying we shouldn’t try), there are still thousands of ways to make things better. Despite the regulatory limitations, we still have lots of leeway to figure out how we can make more accurate decisions, become more efficient, provide better service to our customers, or contribute to creating a more positive work environment for our colleagues. If done right, all of those things add value and contribute to better outcomes.

Daniel, you said that “If people feel that their ability to effect meaning results from their work is limited, they will focus their attention on the immediacy of coworkers, process, and limited work unit objectives. That is a breeding ground for short sighted, ad hoc, and territorial actions which only serve to reinforce the inability of the organization to effect positive change.”

That’s a great point. We do indeed need to guard against ad hoc fixes that aren’t sustainable or that prompt territorial games. If we wait for a leader from outside the organization to charge in on their white horse and fix the structural issues, we’ll be waiting for a very long time. We all need to take ownership of doing what we can within our spheres of influence to create pockets of excellence that can become a positive example for other parts of our organizations.

There are many more things we can do to work towards those big picture changes that are needed. The work of government is done by people. The structures are designed by people. And only people can fix it.

My article Tips for Change Agents outlines the practices that have helped me persevere in my own ongoing efforts to effect change on a large scale.

And yes, managers and senior executives often do get in the way of employees who want to make a difference. That’s the whole point of my initial blog post (and of GovLeaders.org). We need leaders in government who will lead and create a positive work environment where their employees feel they are learning and growing and that their ideas matter. When we do so, we have a much greater chance of achieving positive outcomes for the American people.

We have far too many managers who do not do those things. We need thousands more who do.

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Mark Hammer

I received an interesting paper the other day, from the current issue of the International Review of Administrative Sciences, http://ras.sagepub.com/content/80/1/131.abstract , looking at a favourite topic of mine, “public service motivation”, as a function of hierarchical level of the public-sector employee.

While the research field is becoming more nuanced in recent years, the earliest work in the area tended to treat public servants in kind of a monolithic fashion, and did not distinguish the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation of employees in different sorts of jobs. So, it might look into who seeks out public sector employment, or leaves PS employment for the private sector, or expresses greater job satisfaction, as a function of their score on a questionnaire examining PSM (and these questionnaires would be developed using all the usual classic instrument-development methods: factor analysis, Cronbach’s alpha, etc.). The results of such work tend to be equivocal, sometimes positive (i.e., measured PSM predictive of choices), and sometimes negative (PSM didn’t matter).

So, it was with anticipation and pleasure that I read this recent study from France that looked at whether different aspects of the overall PSM construct mattered more to people as a function of their level in the bureaucracy. And, sure enough, what they saw was that PSM overall was not really very different for front-line workers, their immediate supervisors, and folks at the policy table, but different components (Compassion, Self-sacrifice, Commitment to public values, Attraction to public policy) had different weights/scores as a function of position-type. So, much as you might expect, the compassion and self-sacrifice aspects were a somewhat bigger deal to front-line workers and their supervisors, but less so for senior managers and “experts” (flagged by education and salary level), in a sample of nearly 2900 across 12 countries.

I mention this study because the aspects of the job that give one a sense of fulfillment and “justified effort” would be expected to vary according to job/role, and ought to be anticipated in a nuanced way by the organization. To the extent that front-line workers who directly serve the public, and their supervisors who make sure they CAN serve that public effectively, or admin-support staff, or the technical folks in the back room who keep the systems and gear running but don’t have much contact with the public, or the folks around the policy table, or in communications, have different reasons for wanting to be, or remain, in the public sector, those intrinsic motives have to be realized/fulfilled to the extent that people in those various roles want/need them to be in order to be optimally motivated.

Not really an earth-shattering insight, but certainly one we tend to lose sight of all too often.

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