Improving employee engagement at federal agencies could also positively impact the satisfaction citizens have with those agencies’ services, according to a case study released by the Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group March 25.

The study analyzed employee engagement and customer satisfaction data from over 150 Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers and found that when employees at those centers were happier with their jobs, patients reported better experiences as well.

“Analysis of VA medical center performance data and Best Places to Work in the federal government engagement scores for 2016, 2017 and 2018 revealed a statistically significant link between rising employee engagement and better performance on three quality measures: patient satisfaction, facility call center performance and the rate of turnover among registered nurses,” the report said.

The Partnership for Public Service calculates employee engagement based on responses to three questions in the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey:

  • I recommend my organization as a good place to work.
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?

According to the report, for every percentage point increase in employee engagement, customer satisfaction increased by half a point, while call center times decreased and the medical centers were better able to retain nursing staff.

“The rate of turnover among registered nurses was found to decline as employee engagement at VA medical centers improved,” the report said.

“This finding is important as VA faces a critical need to recruit and retain nurses. According to a recent analysis conducted by Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly 40,000 of the 335,000 positions in the Veterans Health Administration are unfilled — with medical positions accounting for most of the vacancies.”

The study also zeroed in on two particular medical centers — the VA St. Louis Health Care System and the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, Pennsylvania — which both had largely negative scores until new leadership — Keith Repko and Sigrid Andrew, respectively — took over and placed an emphasis on employee satisfaction scores.

“One of Andrew’s first steps after taking over at Altoona was to study the VA’s All Employee Survey results for her facility and meet with a random sample of 10 percent of the workforce to dig deeper. Andrew asked employees how she could run the facility more effectively, and learned that members of the staff felt bullied and disrespected by management. In response, Andrew established a monthly series of training programs aimed at developing better leaders. Critically, she told employees that she heard them and was taking action,” the report said.

“Repko and his team in St. Louis also invested in developing his facility’s leaders. While leadership training had largely been limited to the medical center’s senior managers, Repko made it available to leaders at all levels, including first-line supervisors.”

Engagement scores at both locations jumped to the top of those within the VA.

“Initially, we tried to improve our performance, but had little success. Then, we took a step back and really focused on improving employee engagement,” said Repko in the report.

“Our engagement scores have moved from the bottom 20 percent [of VA medical centers] to the top half. At the same time, we’ve moved from a low 2-star to a provisional 4-star facility. I firmly believe it is no coincidence that we first invested in engaging our employees, and that’s driven our improvement in quality.”

The findings are significant for the VA overall, which has faced a torrent of complaints over the past few years because of wait times and other customer satisfaction issues.

In 2017, VA had an employee engagement score of 56.1, but that jumped significantly to 64.2 in 2018.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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