Engaging the disengaged in government

I have had the good fortune to work in the UK Parliament as well as a number of departments across the British government. In my case, there was never any problem about being engaged in my role and mission – if you can’t be thrilled by the opportunity to work in 10 Downing Street, for example, then you might as well pack up and go home.

Unfortunately, this picture is not replicated uniformly – which should come as no surprise. Few organisations are as complex or as far-reaching as government. There is a world of difference between working in a policy department in the heart of Whitehall and being staffed on a call centre for a department like HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The scale of this diversity underpins the vastly different results in employee engagement that exist in government departments across the UK.

So, what can be done about this?

Focusing on the frontline

Peter Housden, the former permanent secretary of the Scottish government, recently took a close look at the future of public services. In his report – which considered the future shape and direction of public services – he rightly cited the importance of engaging frontline staff. This is because there is plenty of evidence to show that staff who are more engaged perform better and are better at achieving the organisation’s objectives.

Unfortunately the public sector generally has low engagement – certainly when compared to the best of the private sector. This is partly down to the fact that it is very hard to measure productivity in the public sector but, by extension, if engagement is low then that is going to be bad for the organisation.

One of the things we do at the Institute for Government is look at the annual staff surveys of different departments, examining their trends over time and so on. Those that have a lot of processing staff – the people who sit in call centres and deal with members of the public, who have often been waiting on the phone for a long time – consistently suffer from lower engagement scores. By contrast, policy departments – such as the Treasury – have an easier task in engaging staff. They have far less interaction with the public and they don’t have several different sites scattered across the UK.

But that doesn’t mean larger organisations with call centre staff should simply give up. Retail giant John Lewis, for example, has sites across the UK and a large workforce, yet it has long received good engagement marks from its staff. Perhaps this is down to the ownership structure – every single one of its permanent staff is a partner, and they ultimately own the retailer’s department stores and supermarkets. They also go out of their way to empower staff on the shop floor to make their own decisions.

Empower and unleash

We know what motivates people. One of the ways of doing so is enabling staff to break free from the feeling that they have to follow every rule to the letter. Clearly, in government there is a balance to be struck – at the Department for Work and Pensions you wouldn’t want to give call centre staff a lot of discretion over things like welfare claims – but there is no doubt that if an employee is looking up to whoever is doing the complying, then they are not looking out to the customer. Creating greater flexibility and empowerment would particularly help those who – while very committed to their jobs – also feel ground down by the systems and lack of autonomy that can often be found in the government machinery.

One effective tool has been the establishment of an online chat system for call centre staff working at HMRC, which has proved very popular with staff and customers alike. This type of instant messaging has meant that staff can meet customer needs much more efficiently and also cut down on the time that customers are forced to wait on the phone. It shows how helping people to work well with the public will help their engagement – it’s a virtuous circle.

Good communication is important, too. How senior people communicate messages plays a major role in engagement. If they communicate something to junior staff as a command and control message, it implies that they don’t trust them, and this implicit message has a negative impact on staff engagement. But if they can communicate in ways that play to the values that they want to promote – teamwork, loyalty, accountability, and so on – there is lots of evidence that this primes people to be more productive and more engaged.

Similarly, when senior staff fail to live up to their own vaunted standards of behaviour, junior staff will become disillusioned. Government departments also have to be careful about the tone of the messages they send to staff. All too often it is overly aspirational and too similar to the style you might find in a press release. But this type of communication is ineffective – people tune out and they don’t believe it.

Such challenges are by no means limited to the UK – they are prevalent in governments and large organisations around the world – but I am convinced that they are not here to stay. Effective communication, flexibility and empowerment can unlock greater engagement and, in doing so, help deliver a step change in government performance. Citizens and staff will benefit as a result.



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