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Employee Engagement Strategies at HHS

After receiving feedback on 50 project recommendations, we discussed each recommendation and created several documents to help organize and track the work.

"Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers." - Stephen R. Covey

Through our various experiments here at the IDEA Lab, we have learned that engagement is integral to the process of good ideas being triggered into action. Part of this evolution involves doing a better job of disseminating and sharing best practices and lessons learned. So we're going to be featuring more examples on our blog of those teams and individuals who have been trying new ideas across HHS in the hopes that you will be inspired to share your story too or try something new. We recently highlighted the Health Resources and Services Administration's leadership efforts to operationalize innovation which we heard was helpful. So when we learned about some promising employee engagement efforts within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), we had to find out more and share. Jennifer Cannistra, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at ASPE was kind enough to offer up some practical insights from their recent work.

Photo of Jennifer Cannistra

Could you give us a high-level description of ASPE and its function within the Department?

ASPE advises the Secretary on the Department's policies to support decisions involving health, disability, human services, data, science, and economic policy to help make HHS programs more effective. We conduct policy research and provide a cross-cutting, evidence-based perspective on programs and policies across many agencies, both within HHS and across the government. ASPE also leads special initiatives; helps coordinate the Department's evaluations and research; and manages cross-Department planning activities such as strategic planning and legislative planning.

What is best part of your job here at HHS?

The best part of my job is working with a group of incredibly dynamic, smart, innovative, and kind people. The people in ASPE are truly wonderful. The team has different backgrounds-we include public health analysts, project managers, economists, statisticians, lawyers, ethicists, sociologists, and physicians-but everyone brings unique expertise to their work that help us best serve the Secretary and the Department. It's also a group of civil servants who care a great deal about the people we serve and go the extra mile for them. For example, our deputy chief economist delivered meals to the homebound over Thanksgiving, and our reentry expert manages a once-a-month lunch program for the homeless. The team's dedication is inspiring.

Could you tell us a little bit about ASPE's recent efforts to improve employee engagement within your division and what it looks like? Perhaps starting with what motivated your efforts in this area and a few examples of this work?

When I started in ASPE in the spring of 2014, there had recently been significant leadership turnover, and it was a great time to reassess what worked well in ASPE, what didn't, and how we could make improvements. The survey that all federal employees can complete-called the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey-can be helpful, but because it's multiple choice, you don't get the specific, detailed feedback we wanted. So we drafted an optional online survey that included open-ended questions (e.g., "How can ASPE better serve the Department?," "What works well in ASPE?," and "If there is one thing you could change about ASPE, what would it be?") as well as targeted questions on a variety of topics including collaboration, communication, training, our research planning process, and sharing ASPE's work with stakeholders. We made a number of changes in the way we do business based on this feedback, including creating employee entrance and exit surveys to see how we can improve both welcoming and retaining our team; revising our all-ASPE weekly report to make it more useful for staff; increasing transparency around spending and research planning; improving our physical space by holding a "Spring Cleaning Week" to declutter offices and hallways; creating a staff-led "Photography Committee" to choose prints for the newly-available common wall space; and holding monthly lunches with staff and regular all-ASPE meetings to get direct feedback. We also supported the formation of an employee engagement committee as a space for ASPE staff to come together to create constructive, positive changes in ASPE, and we regularly meet with this group to discuss their projects and hear their feedback.

We know this work has just begun but what results/outcomes/effects are you seeing so far (if any)? Any key insights that you can share thus far?

Our most significant effort from this survey was creating four employee-led teams to do a deeper dive into key areas. We chose these areas among many suggestions because they have significance for ASPE's work and we had room to improve, based on survey results. The projects addressed:

  • communication/collaboration within ASPE and with other agencies;
  • best practices for ASPE report dissemination;
  • staff development/training; and
  • improving the ASPE website and intranet.

We asked each policy office to take the lead on one of the projects, which meant one of its employees would be the project leader and would help form a cross-ASPE team to tackle the issue. A tremendous amount of staff effort went into these projects, and the resulting recommendations were extremely thoughtful and helpful. We asked each team to meet with the front office to present a project plan, and on their own initiative they circulated surveys, did literature reviews, and conducted interviews with individuals inside and outside ASPE. Each team worked on their project for approximately six months, and in early 2015, each team presented its final report and recommendations-first to office leadership and then at an all-ASPE meeting, with an opportunity for questions and comments. After receiving feedback on the 50 project recommendations, we discussed each recommendation and created several documents to help organize and track the work. We circulated these summaries to everyone in ASPE, and a group reviews action steps on a regular basis to make sure we are on track. To take just one example, we implemented a recommendation to bring on a full-time communications expert to help us with external communications and dissemination of ASPE reports and other products. I think one of the most important results from our work so far is that the ASPE team now has greater confidence that we are listening and will take action. If you want already-overworked employees to take time to work on office-wide improvement/engagement efforts, they need to know that their work will lead to improvements. I am also proud that employees are now bringing more challenging issues to our attention, perhaps in part because they know we are willing to engage. There is always more work we can do, but establishing this level of trust and shared commitment to improving ASPE can go a long way. A side benefit is that these projects also brought people together from different offices around ASPE. I think in a lot of offices people stick with their own groups, and there aren't always many opportunities to work across groups. The project teams were purposely structured to bring together people who don't usually work together. This type of approach helps make ASPE a stronger community.

What advice would you give other colleagues in other parts of the Department that are seeking to improve their levels of employee engagement?

I would recommend four key pieces to an employee engagement strategy.

  1. Employees are your greatest asset. Don't assume you know what they need and want - ask them. Get actionable and detailed feedback from employees, whether through a survey, focus groups, or informal conversations. We found that it's really important to receive feedback directly from employees about what works well and what doesn't work well-including suggestions to make improvements. We chose to allow survey responses to be anonymous so that staff would feel comfortable telling us the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think you get more helpful feedback when you offer multiple routes for staff to talk to you and ensure that at least one of them is anonymous.
  2. You have to follow through. The leadership team must be committed to take action based on feedback. I continually heard "it's great you're asking for feedback, but what are you going to DO with that feedback?" I think you could actually do more harm than good if you start the project and then don't follow through. We spent a lot of time documenting and communicating what steps we were taking in response to feedback. This included a detailed tracking spreadsheet we shared with all of ASPE that assigned people to each task to ensure accountability.
  3. Run the project as transparently as possible. Welcome all willing participants and when you have information to share, don't hold back. I think it's better to err on the side of giving more information to people and trusting that they are smart enough and professional enough to use it well.
  4. Institutionalize employee engagement. Develop a strategy to institutionalize employee engagement to help ensure that a feedback and empowerment system lives on longer than a one-time survey. In ASPE, we drafted a formal charter for a permanent employee committee to help ensure that ASPE will continue to benefit from employee feedback, employee-driven activities, and thorough analysis and improvement of cross-ASPE issues even after ASPE leadership changes.
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HHS Administrative