Are You Happy? Clap Along If You Feel Like Gov Is For You

“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do” – “Happy,” Pharrell Williams

Are you happy in your job? What do you think about government? How do you view your job? Is the government working as effectively as it could?

These are just a few of the questions that the Office of Personnel Management asks in its annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Taking a cue from Pharrell William’s catchy song “Happy,” OPM is looking to improve feds’ job satisfaction. But in order to improve, they first have to get a gauge on what people are currently feeling.

Tom Fox is the Vice President of the Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the Federal Viewpoint Survey is critical to agency morale improvements.

Every year the Partnership for Public Service builds on the results of the Federal Viewpoint Survey and creates their Best Places to Work analysis.

“We found agencies who succeed consistently, as well as those who turn it around, use this viewpoint survey as that opportunity to better understand what’s going on for employees,” said Fox. “They also use it as an early indicator of what they need to do differently.”

How can you make the survey results work for your agency? Fox said there were three key takeaways.

  • Managers need to communicate to employees that you want them to take the survey, that you’ll analyze the information, and you’ll do something with it.
  • Create an action plan focus group with employees. Managers should put together a set of plans and activities to respond to the feedback, and constantly monitor the progress.
  • After the survey has been completed, create a quarterly poll survey to measure whether in fact what you’re trying is actually having an impact.

“One of the most telling questions on the survey is the extent to which employees agree with the statement that, ‘This survey will be used to improve the performance of my agency,’” said Fox. “If you’re a leader, you might look at that right now, even last year’s data, to see what your employees are saying, because that will tell you whether you have credibility, or a credibility gap that you need to overcome.”

Agencies like NASA and the Department of Transportation tend to do well year-over-year in these surveys, explained Fox. “The best performing agencies over time in the survey, are constantly tinkering with how they can improve things, how they can engage employees, and you’ve seen results. That’s the way you can reference to your folks that it’s a really sincere heartfelt effort and not just simply a management exercise,” said Fox.

There is a strong correlation between the best agency to work for and agencies who take the results of the Federal Viewpoint Survey seriously, Fox added.

“If you look at places like the Patent and Trademark Office, which went to from the near worst to first in the last couple of rankings, you can see these results matter,” said Fox. “Great leadership and attention to managing people made the difference. PTO saw their backlog of patent applications decline, they saw the number of intellectual property measures being secured increase. They saw real outcomes associated work, with the work that they did, not just a set of outputs.”

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Mark Hammer

My ongoing concern for users of such surveys, in any jurisdiction, at any level of government, in any nation, is that they tend to get viewed in terms of individual item results, rather than in a more sophisticated contextually-sensitive way to produce insight into the mechanics of the soul of the organization.

Managers have plenty of other things to do, so they are eager to quickly determine if they are in, or out of, trouble by looking at simple %-positive results. Such results are useful, and sometimes meaningful, but they rarely result in deeper insight into the organization. For my part, “reporting” is for kids. It’s showing that you did your homework and cleaned up your room. Research and insight are the traits more associated with an adult perspective, and a mature organization that values growth.

The real insights arise when one starts to engage in the cross-tabulations and multi-variate analyses. It becomes possible to understand the “why” of organizational outcomes. Sometimes this helps to identify practices that one should strive to avoid. Sometimes it helps identify commendable worthy (though not necessarily “best”) practices. Sometimes it helps to identify hospitable contexts where certain practices will yield great outcomes, and contexts that render those same practices fruitless or even counterproductive. Every organization – even the “best places to work” – could be better than they currently are. That’s not a flaw, but an optimistic expression that “if you thought this was great, just wait…”. And it’s insight that lets one move beyond.

The focus on “results”, as indicated by individual items in isolation, can lead to expending considerable resources and energy (and occasionally squandering good will) in pursuit of ineffective strategies and interventions, occasionally at the urging of outside consultants that have minimal insight into the workings of the organization.

We are familiar with the notion of “teaching to the test”, whereby instructors focus too much on the specifics of tests, and lose sight of the validity. Managers can end up “managing to the indicators”. It is a real risk. Particularly when the manager doesn’t possess much in the way of “measurement chops” and accepts what they are told about their organizational survey results, without much insight, qualification, or interpretation.

Happy IS good. It’s a terrific goal to strive for. Couldn’t agree more. Regular and timely feedback, as well as followup, is important for establishing and maintaining trust. But if you’re not learning more than you already knew about the organization, then “happy” and followup is probably not going to be enough.