Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood inherited an agency with low morale and turned it around by listening to employees.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As the Trump administration’s new Cabinet secretaries and other top-level political appointees get acquainted with their responsibilities, some will find they have inherited high-performing organizations while others will discover that their agencies are struggling.

For those leaders interested in a quick, fact-based assessment of how employees view their agencies, a good place to start is the 2016 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. For many years, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Deloitte, have produced the rankings as a means of measuring employee engagement, alerting leaders to signs of workforce dissatisfaction and providing insights into improving agency management.

Generally speaking, there’s good news and bad news.

First the good news. Most Cabinet secretaries will be inheriting a federal workforce showing signs of improved employee engagement – that is, increased job and workplace satisfaction and commitment, and a willingness to put forth extra effort to achieve positive results.

Although there were declines in the Best Places to Work employee engagement scores across the government from 2011 to 2014, improvement occurred in 2015 and 2016 along with the more discreet measures of effective leadership, employee skills-mission match, teamwork, innovation, and training and development. Looking agency-by-agency, more than 70 percent have seen their overall scores increase in 2016.

Now, there’s some bad news too. Despite recent gains, our federal government has a long way to go, especially when compared to the private sector. And the efforts of the new political appointees to boost employee engagement could be hampered by President Trump’s hiring freeze, creating skill gaps in the workforce and potentially making it harder for employees to do their jobs and agencies to effectively fulfill their missions.

According to Sirota, a survey research organization, the 2016 employee engagement score for private sector employees was 77.1 on a scale of 100 compared to the federal government’s Best Places to Work results of 59.4. Only 12 federal agencies scored above the private sector average. As far as I can tell, the gap is largely the result of best-in-class private sector organizations understanding that employee engagement leads to better performance and improved results.

The new administration, especially its Cabinet secretaries, their deputies and other senior managers, should aspire to meet the private sector standard by placing a focus on supporting the federal workforce and improving the workplace culture. With so many private sector executives making the transition to public service, we can hope that they bring that attention to the people part of the job from day one.

Here’s an example of success from the recent past.

When former Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood became secretary of Department of Transportation in 2009, he quickly discovered his bad news firsthand. The department was ranked dead last among large agencies in the Best Places to Work rankings. When interviewed in 2012, he said, “I made a commitment that day to do everything I could do to engage people and really change morale and opinions at the department.”

Engaging his senior political and career executives and human resources staff, LaHood set out to understand what made for high performance at DOT, to share those best practices with leaders, and to require that they commit to doing two or three things from the list of best practices by including them in their annual performance contracts.

His tactics were not rocket science: Drop by employee meetings. Schedule regular listening sessions or town hall meetings to gain employee insights. Send out weekly updates. Walk the halls. Schedule regular, informal check-ins over coffee. Travel to regional offices to communicate more directly with employees – the majority of whom live outside the Beltway.

DOT leaders quickly discovered that little changes led to big results, and they have been a top-10 large agency in the rankings ever since.

While Cabinet secretaries and their teams will give priority to the new president’s policy agenda, they should not lose sight of the fact that they will need the career civil servants to accomplish their goals. And to get the most out of the workforce, they will need to create a positive workplace environment, communicate effectively, listen to their employees and address job-related concerns.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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