Successful Survey Strategies in Government
Marc Plooster is an Accountant for the County of Ottawa, MI. Prior to joining Ottawa County, he worked for the City of Grand Rapids, MI in multiple roles including as a John H. Logie Fellow.

Last November, the government I am employed by requested employees take the organization’s anonymous biannual survey. As with any organization-wide, multiple question survey, the results are at times underwhelming because of the central limit theorem, but the trends are none-the-less interesting.

The results, released to employees this past week, present not only responses from last November but additionally the results from the 2015 survey as well as Survey Monkey Global Benchmark Data from 2015 and 2017. For most of the questions, employees were asked to answer on a five-point Likert Scale. Questions at the end of the survey were open-ended and prove more useful to understand the organization. For the Likert Scale questions, the four data points are statistically similar with “Agree” as the most popular answer for all questions from all four surveys. While the Likert Scale questions ended up being similar, there were patterns in the open-ended responses. The most common open-ended responses, unsurprisingly, related to money. Whether it was calling for more training investment or more local support of grant-funded programming to additional employee wages, employees see the priorities of the organization in terms of money.

The second most common comment made by employees praised the county for the work they are doing. Having a balance of both employees who believe the government and their department are doing well juxtaposed by employees who feel comfortable enough to challenge the county to get better shows a healthy balance in the organization. Now that the results from a survey open to all employees are published, what can everyone do to improve before the 2019 survey? If the answers to the Likert Scale questions are faithful to reality and current employees find their work rewarding but want to continually improve the organization, management needs to, at a minimum, acknowledge the responses to the open-ended questions. Responding to the survey suggests the time that was dedicated to the process and the financial commitment made by the organization were worthwhile.

While the concept of employee engagement is nothing new, to put it in practice is a challenge faced by organizations in every sector.

How should the government respond? Some of the more interesting and specific answers to the survey suggest there is room for improvement. The government employees who participated in this survey were not convinced their colleagues are willing to change, and employees do not know whether senior management and employees trust each other. While the trend is improving in the 2017 survey over the 2015 edition, these results were different than the benchmark. These two particular questions pair nicely with the open-ended questions, “What can the organization do to improve employee engagement?” While most employees focused on the financials of the organization, one respondent said, “Keep on paying close attention to employee engagement and pushing to get better every day”. With some liberty in writing this, I can imagine the employee might agree that when developing new processes or policies, governments should ask for the input of employees who must follow the procedures.

When organizational and department changes are initiated by all staff and not just management, it is easier to see how buy-in by all staff is more possible. When management asks for and implements feedback from all staff, the two groups may find trust in one another improves. While the concept of employee engagement is nothing new, to put it in practice is a challenge faced by organizations in every sector.

Simply having a platform for employees to engage in a risk-free review of the organization is a start, but a truly healthy government would have employees who feel confident enough to share their ideas and management humble enough to listen. A survey is a decent place to start those conversations.  Moreover, for organizations that participate in longitudinal studies including those benchmarked to global metrics, it is important to identify trends and begin to make connections among the aggregated responses.

When employees are asked open-ended questions, the insights and suggestions that come from those may prove beneficial to better the organization and more generally the community. Everyone from management to staff has invested time, effort and money into the process, and with just a little more of each, something great may come from the experience.

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