What exactly do federal public servants want? The message from the 3rd Public Service Employee Survey published in June is renewal.
In federal surveys conducted in 1999, 2002 and 2005, employees show a remarkable commitment to public service. Over 90% are proud of their work and believe in their organization and its mandate.
In both 2002 and 2005, 90% were strongly committed to making their organization successful, 80% felt treated with respect, and 70% could explain the vision and values of their organization to others. These are very strong results. They reflect the dedication and commitment that employees bring to work every day.
But there is more to the story as employees are signaling that they have significant concerns. There is a risk of disengagement and diminished commitment to excellence if we fail to understand the dimensions of the renewal employees are seeking – more confidence in senior management, improved career development and learning, a better work environment and reduced barriers to effectiveness.
Confidence in management
There are signs that employees lack confidence in their leaders. Only a third felt progress had been made in addressing the results of the 2002 survey. Only half believe management will address concerns raised in the current survey.
Also troubling, 45% do not feel that senior management does a good job of sharing information and 36% do not think they can initiate a formal redress procedure without fear of reprisal.
More confidence is shown in the relationship with immediate supervisors, but there are still some gaps. As many as 25% say that the supervisor does not keep them informed about issues affecting their work, 25% say they do not get adequate recognition from their immediate supervisor and 28% say they do not get useful feedback about their job performance. One in five does not feel the supervisor distributes work fairly. Some 31% are not satisfied with the way supervisors handle informal complaints, and only 50% of employees believe their supervisor or their department does a good job of helping them develop their career.
If the gap between employee commitment and confidence in leadership is too wide, or not improving over time, a cultural disconnect could emerge and lead to employee disengagement. Initiatives to bring about renewal may encounter resistance if employee confidence in their leaders does not improve.
Overall, 77% of public servants expressed satisfaction with their career, consistent with survey results in 2002. However, responses to more specific questions point to areas of weakness in career development and learning programs.
Many employees believe that a lack of information about selection processes (37%) and restrictions in the area of competition (50%) impede their career – 30% do not believe the selection process is fair and 1 in 5 disagreed that the right person was hired for the job.
A surprising 60% say they would be reluctant to apply for a developmental position. Of the employees who did, 44% said they were “denied” an assignment, and many felt they had not received a reasonable explanation.
As competition for Gen X and Y talent becomes more intense, opportunities for learning and development will become critical. Federal employees do not feel well served in this regard: 34% say lack of access to learning opportunities adversely affected their career and 41% claim that lack of access to developmental opportunities had a negative impact. One third say that their supervisor does not provide on-the-job coaching or an opportunity to develop and apply their skills.
It is not surprising, then, that half of all respondents do not believe they have opportunities for promotion in their department and many do not believe there are opportunities in the federal public service overall.
Obviously, employees also have a responsibility for the development of their careers and identifying their own learning needs. However, it is worrying to see that substantial numbers of employees do not believe they receive support and guidance from their supervisors and that many also believe their career opportunities are adversely affected by lack of fairness in the selection processes.
It is ironic that as senior managers prepare to address challenges of how to find and engage top talent, our employees believe there are insufficient opportunities for them, that their organization is not fully committed to learning, or that their career development is not being encouraged. The future ability of the federal public service to recruit and retain the best talent available will be diminished if these results are not improved.
Despite strong confidence in their work unit and its role, a sizeable minority viewed their work environment as unsupportive.
Many employees feel they work in a stressful environment, with varying degrees of control over their work. Some 20% say they can only sometimes or rarely complete their work during regular hours and 40% feel pressure to work more than regular hours. One third had difficulty balancing work and family needs. Health (burnout, disability, etc) and workplace difficulties were the leading reasons cited by those planning to leave the public service.
The majority feels that only sometimes or rarely do they have a say in decisions and actions at work. More than 40% believe they rarely or only sometimes receive encouragement to be innovative and undertake new initiatives, and 29% feel their supervisor does not discuss with the employee the results he or she is expected to achieve. Only 31% said that their work unit takes time periodically to review how it conducts business.
Barriers to effectiveness
There is a strong belief that work suffers as a result of changing priorities, a lack of organizational stability, too many approval stages, unreasonable deadlines and inadequate resources. In almost every one of these questions, these perceptions increased from three to five percent between the 2002 and 2005 surveys.
It is somewhat surprising that supervisors, and more particularly executives, were more likely to believe that the quality of work suffered due to unreasonable deadlines or lack of resources. Perhaps, as Linda Duxbury has noted, managers need to do a better job in challenging unreasonable schedules, re-setting priorities and ensuring that resources are available to undertake the responsibilities which have been assigned.
Employee vision of renewal
Employees are saying very clearly that they are proud of their work and their contribution, and are dedicated to public service – a wonderful foundation on which to build renewal.
They are also raising warning flags: they are concerned about their environment and impediments to high-quality work. They want richer, more varied careers with a stronger learning environment and more career support from leaders and supervisors. And to date, they have not been encouraged by the response from senior management – despite the significant effort many managers may have invested in addressing employee concerns.
There are many ways in which public service leaders can build and implement a vision of renewal that will resonate with all employees. In a recent “town hall” meeting with PS executives, Privy Council Clerk Kevin Lynch noted that the public service was replete with examples of best practices – the challenge is to establish these as the norm or benchmark