In Redwood City, Calif., the outside of the offices at the Social Security Administration and the San Mateo County Probation Pretrial Services branch building.

The Inherent Challenges of U.S. Federal Employee Engagement Priorities

January 25, 2022 Employee Experience
By Dom Nicastro

The U.S. government wants to improve employee engagement as part of its Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision by hiring qualified, diverse employees, ensuring employees are heard, have growth opportunities and operate within a strong personnel system. 

It’s a bold mission for an entity that has a workforce numbering around 2.2 million.

“No one entity can solve the problems we face on its own, but there is nothing we can’t achieve if we unite around a common purpose,” President Biden said in a letter included in the management agenda vision. “While we have plenty of work ahead to build an equitable, effective, and accountable government that delivers results for all, we are building on a strong foundation, and the possibilities before us are limitless.”

It won't be without its challenges. However, it is a good time to double down on engagement efforts.

For the first year in more than a decade, the percentage of engaged workers in the US declined in 2021, according to a Gallup study. Just over one-third of employees (34%) were engaged, and 16% were actively disengaged in their work and workplace, based on a random sample of 57,022 full- and part-time employees throughout the year, Gallup researchers found. This compares, they said, with 36% engaged and 14% actively disengaged in 2020.

Related Article: What Is Governance and Why Does it Matter for the Digital Workplace?

4 Priorities Mark Federal Employee Engagement Mission

The U.S. federal government is approaching employee engagement through a handful of priorities:

  • Priority 1: Attract and hire the most qualified employees, who reflect the diversity of our country, in the right roles across the federal government
  • Priority 2: Make every federal job a good job, where all employees are engaged, supported, heard, and empowered, with opportunities to learn, grow, join a union and have an effective voice in their workplaces through their union, and thrive throughout their careers
  • Priority 3: Reimagine and build a roadmap to the future of Federal work informed by lessons from the pandemic and nationwide workforce and workplace trends
  • Priority 4: Build the personnel system and support required to sustain the Federal Government as a model employer able to effectively deliver on a broad range of agency missions

It won’t be easy to put the checkmarks on each of these priorities. What challenges will the federal government face on this mission to improve employee engagement? And what can the private industry learn from those challenges?

Getting Qualified, Diverse Employees in the Right Roles

Priority 1: Attract and hire the most qualified employees, who reflect the diversity of our country, in the right roles across the federal government.

Aaron Mosby, director of federal business development with customer experience software provider Avtex, said the mission of each federal agency is the key to its competitive advantage in the workplace market. “Strong benefits and job stability have long been the cornerstone of federal recruitment efforts but private industry will always have the advantage in a bidding war,” Mosby said.

Further, many federal jobs require high education and specialization in a specific field. The more skilled the position, the more competition there will be for those recruits. “The merit system discourages preferential treatment of recruits during the hiring process,” Mosby said. “Federal agencies should partner with universities that are training specialized talent in order to highlight the unique benefits of mission-based work.”

As for diversity, the government has always been a pioneer of diverse hiring practices, Mosby said, but as agencies attempt to diversify into younger demographics they need to offer opportunities that entry-level candidates can obtain. “Expanding internship opportunities, as proposed in the Building the Next Generation Act, is a good place to start,” Mosby added, “but where the government can really attract young talent is by showing them that mission-based work really makes a difference in the world.”

Related Article: Riding the Employee Engagement Rollercoaster

Constant Monitoring of Employee Satisfaction

Priority 2: Make every Federal job a good job, where all employees are engaged, supported, heard, and empowered, with opportunities to learn, grow, join a union and have an effective voice in their workplaces through their union, and thrive throughout their careers.

Federal employers should focus on employee satisfaction day to day, month to month, year to year, Mosby said. Federal jobs are defined by regulations, security threats, the current funding environment and a number of other factors that are beyond the control of individual contributors.

“This creates,” Mosby said, “a unique set of employee satisfaction challenges that federal managers should always be monitoring. This can be done in a passive manner, like the Government-Wide Federal Employee Voice surveys from the President's Management council, or through proactive employee journey mapping that defines how employees perform their roles and responsibilities and how they access internal services, like access to pay and benefits resources and IT service requests.”

Access to training is a pillar of the federal workplace. Federal training coordinators should be given access to tools that allow them to proactively ensure that all employees are fully trained and have access to all of the available funding for training efforts, according to Mosby.

Taking Remote-Work Lessons from COVID-19

Priority 3: Reimagine and build a roadmap to the future of federal work informed by lessons from the pandemic and nationwide workforce and workplace trends.

The federal government has been a pioneer in telework, according to Mosby. The pandemic showed that jobs we thought had to be completed in-person can, in fact, must be able to be completed remotely, he added.

“The most interesting challenge will be for the national security and intelligence community who have built a security apparatus that hinges on the physical location of workers,” Mosby said. “The question is, how do you migrate the security environment inherent to the SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility) to the myriad remote working environments? While there are no easy answers here, threat vectors, like the pandemic, continue to make this an urgent issue that security teams and federal managers must continue to address.”

Related Article: Remote Work: What We've Lost and What We've Gained

The Quest for Simplicity in Employee Experience

Priority 4: Build the personnel system and support required to sustain the federal government as a model employer able to effectively deliver on a broad range of agency missions.

Managers and employees are looking for and in many cases expect simplicity when it comes to the employee journey, according to Mosby. Simplicity, he added, will always be a challenge in the public sector, and bills like the Strengthening the Office of Personnel Management Act propose standardization of access to tools that federal agencies can use to attract and retain talent.

“What will be critical to the success of this or any other initiative,” Mosby said, “is direct engagement of current past and future government employees to ensure that their needs and expectations serve as a key success criteria for the future of federal employment.”

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