By Suzannah.Brecknell

08 Feb 2012

Nearly two years ago the prime minister met civil servants to set out his plans for reform. What impact are those reforms having on staff morale? Suzannah Brecknell reports on the third annual Civil Service People Survey

Teams with above-average staff engagement levels are twice as successful as those with below-average levels – at least according to a 2009 report compiled by researchers at Gallup, who examined studies of the effects of staff engagement on staff productivity and organisational effectiveness from around the world. It’s no wonder, therefore, that civil service leaders under pressure to deliver results with shrinking resources are keen to monitor and improve civil servants’ “emotional response to the organisation they work for” – as engagement is defined by the Cabinet Office (CO).

For three years the civil service has been running an annual staff survey, examining attitudes across government. The 2011 survey took place in September and October, and was completed by nearly 300,000 people in 97 organisations. It found that engagement levels have remained constant since 2010, at 56 per cent. Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, is cautiously optimistic about this figure, given the changes to civil service pension schemes, the job losses and pay freeze.

“Taking the scale of change that happened last year, to have held the overall position is not a bad place to be,” he says, but he adds that “I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that this is sufficient: we have to keep building more engagement across the civil service.”

Understanding engagement
The Civil Service People Survey (CSPS) measures engagement using responses to five statements, such as: ‘I am proud when I tell others I am part of my organisation’, and: ‘My organisation inspires me to do the best in my job’. These are, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s employee relations expert Mike Emmott, “very good measures, really close to the heart of what I think of as engagement”.

He adds, however, that the choice of statements “notably omit any reference to satisfaction, stress or thinking about leaving the organisation, which often figure in other measurements”. The measures, therefore, focus very much on organisational rather than personal factors; they “are appropriate for a civil service which needs to pursue performance”, says Emmott, but should be treated with more caution by those looking for “a rounded measure of civil servants’ personal attitudes or wellbeing”.

As well as the five questions on employee engagement, the CSPS includes questions grouped around nine themes which CO believes help shape engagement levels, including pay and benefits; learning and development; and resources and workload. Of these nine, the CO picks out three (leadership and managing change; my work; and my manager) as having the biggest impact on engagement.

The big picture: good or bad?
A static level of engagement from 2010 to 2011 is “as good as you can expect” given the context, says Emmott – but he also sounds a warning: low engagement scores can undermine an organisation’s ability to recover after periods of change or downsizing. So is 56 per cent a low score? It’s hard to know, says Emmott, since definitions and measures of engagement vary in different studies. A study due to be published later this year by the Kenexa High Performance Institute, comparing public and private sector engagement levels in the US and Europe, found that across Europe engagement scores are 52 per cent in the public sector and 53 per cent in the private sector. However, a global database of over one million staff surveys, maintained by consultancy Boston Consulting Group, presents a different picture. In this research an average of 81 per cent of respondents said they were proud to work for their organisation – compared to 52 per cent of civil servants in 2011.

Craig Baker, head of the UK public sector practice at BCG, believes that the CSPS results show that the civil service still faces “far-reaching challenges”, and “stalling on addressing these problems would be a missed opportunity to make the government’s change programme really count. We should not be satisfied with static people survey results, and cannot use the current climate of cuts and austerity as a defence.”

The smaller picture: departmental variations
Kerslake certainly recognises that more work is needed, and says that the civil service must keep “learning more about what works well and then applying that consistently”. The ability to identify effective hubs of good practice is a key benefit of running a centrally-controlled survey, and the CO produces more than 8,000 reports which provide analysis right down to the level of individual teams within departments.

Though most departmental engagement scores remained within five percentage points of their 2010 scores, some departments climbed ladders – or slid down snakes. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), for example, saw a six point rise from 34 to 40 per cent. Will Meehan, employee engagement senior manager at HMRC, says the organisation is treating this rise with only “cautious optimism” as it is still a low score (see box on p7 for more on HMRC’s engagement work).

Awkwardly for Kerslake, the communities department (DCLG) – of which he is permanent secretary –saw the largest drop in 2011, falling eight points to 40 per cent. A departmental spokeswoman attributed this to “the impact of what has been a very challenging year for the department. We have undergone significant change and the implementation of a very radical restructure and downsizing process.”

“DCLG will work hard to respond over the coming year, and work is already under way,” added the spokeswoman, emphasising that DCLG staff are still relatively positive about their line managers, teams and pay and benefits. “We are confident DCLG is well placed to build from these results and respond to the views of our staff.”

The smallest picture: inside departments
At HMRC, says Meehan, managers have sought to improve engagement by taking advantage of the very detailed data contained in the CSPS results. In the first year of the survey, he says, HMRC took a rather “one-size-fits-all approach” in responding to the findings, but the department now provides reports on individual parts of the organisation and offers managers support to take action. “We encourage them to have conversations with their teams about the survey results, to review what action was taken since the last one, and then think of the key things that matter to this particular team,” he says. Managers are encouraged to focus on a handful of important matters which they can improve, “not huge action plans that don’t get delivered”.

At the Driving Standards Agency (DSA), which saw a three percentage point increase in engagement this year (though at 53 per cent, its score is still below the civil service average), a similar approach has worked well. All senior managers took part in a “very specific action planning process”, says Jane Ide, DSA’s director of communications and engagement, and all staff were asked to identify ways to improve engagement in their own teams. Progress against these plans is “reported right the way through to board level,” she says, explaining that the department works on the principle that “what gets measured, gets done”.

The Department of Health also finds that measuring progress helps to keep engagement work on track: it runs a mid-year ‘pulse survey’ which “gives us the opportunity to reassess our engagement efforts, and re-direct them as necessary,” says a departmental spokesperson.
Ide, like Meehan, suggests that the actions involved need not be huge. “Our experience is that a lot of the things were really quite small in overall terms,” she says: tasks such as getting appraisals done on time, saying ‘thank you’ for a good job, or resolving IT issues quickly can have a disproportionate impact.

What next across the civil service?
Returning to the big picture, Kerslake points out that the survey shows that most civil servants are very positive about their jobs. “People’s satisfaction with their work and with their own teams is pretty strong, that’s a consistent message: people find their work both challenging and interesting,” he says. Across the service, 89 per cent of respondents say they’re interested in their work, while 75 per cent are sufficiently challenged by their work and 72 per cent enjoy a sense of personal accomplishment at work.

Meehan suggests that the challenge facing managers is to turn civil servants’ passion about their jobs, and their pride in their own teams, into a broader sense of engagement with the wider organisation. One way of achieving this, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, is to encourage volunteering and thus “enhance the work experience”: its HR team has identified a strong association between staff engagement and volunteering work, and a spokesperson explains that the department sees increased participation in volunteering as one possible way to reduce a wide variance in scores across the department.

Kerslake identifies two areas of cross-government concern following the 2011 survey. Learning and development, he says, is “a very important area,” and “we want to ensure that people do know we recognise its importance.” In fact, this was an area which stayed relatively constant from the 2010 survey; but scores are low, with just 31 per cent of respondents saying they can see opportunities to develop their career, and 56 per cent saying they cannot access the right training when they need to. Kerslake mentions the energy department as an example of a department which has done well in this area (see box, left), and says: “I really hope this is an area we can move quickly to improve.”

Another area that needs work, he says, is “the confidence in our ability to lead change”. Leadership and change management is a perennial concern for the civil service, and although the overall score for this theme has risen since 2010, it remains low: just 40 per cent of respondents feel their organisation is managed well, and 27 per cent feel change is managed well. At least the proportion of people who feel their board has a clear vision for their organisation – following the changes to departmental board membership – has risen from 35 to 39 per cent.

Sir Bob emphasises the importance of leaders being “visible and understanding: to be seen to be leading, and to be able to communicate that they understand the scale of the challenge that people are going through.” He adds that the forthcoming white paper on civil service reform will provide this visible leadership and tell “the comprehensive story about change”, giving civil servants a clear “sense of what’s changing and why”.

Cabinet Office analysis of CSPS results has identified another crucial way to improve perceptions of departmental leaders: in organisations where senior staff are more engaged, it found, the junior staff tend to have a more positive view about leadership and managing change, and also a better understanding of their organisation’s objectives and purpose.

It’s not just senior managers who matter, however: Ide notes that for many employees, their sense of leadership comes not from the senior staff but from their own line managers. Emmott and Rasch both point out that line management is one of the most important drivers of engagement, and results across the civil service on this topic are fairly encouraging: 63 per cent of respondents think their manager motivates them to be more effective; 79 per cent say managers are open to their ideas; and 71 per cent say they have confidence in decisions made by their manager.

The total package
The biggest drop in overall scores was in the area of pay and benefits. Only 32 per cent of respondents feel their pay adequately reflects their performance (a six point drop on last year), while 34 per cent are satisfied with their total benefits package (a five point drop). Kerslake points out that the survey took place before pension changes were agreed, so “people were aware that change was happening on pensions, but didn’t necessarily know what the full details were, nor the impact on them”. It may help to improve things, he says, now that leaders can be “clearer about the detail and how it affects individuals”.

Ide suggests, however, that engagement teams should not be too concerned about this drop: “What people think about their pay and benefits [has] very little impact on their sense of engagement with an organisation.” Far more important, she says, is the quality of line management, and “knowing your line manager has listened when you’ve got a concern”. Improving engagement “isn’t rocket science”, she adds: “It’s just about doing things right: managing people well; being clear on your expectations of staff; and delivering on staff expectations from a management point of view.”

At HMRC, too, Meehan emphasises the importance of being explicit about the mutual expectations and “psychological contract” between employees and employers. But both he and Ide say that improving engagement will not be a quick process. This is about building trust, says Meehan, and “you don’t suddenly move from not having particularly good views on leadership to having really [positive] views.”

“This was always going to be a three-, four-year journey to reach where we want to be,” says Meehan; and although he’s speaking for HMRC, his comments ring true with Kerslake’s message to the whole of the service: “This [engagement work] can’t suddenly produce miracles, but we’re clear that we’re taking actions which we believe are the right ones,” says Sir Bob. “We just need to do them better, and more consistently, and we’ll get to where we want to be.”

Learning from DECC: Train to Gain
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) saw a ten point rise in scores for the learning and development (L&D) theme in 2011, following a three point drop in 2010. Skills had already been on the agenda for the senior team, says Rachel Watson, head of HR strategy and change: the 2010 results had prompted a series of workshops to find out exactly why staff were struggling to access training.

The department used this information, as well as data gathered in an earlier skills audit, to put together a new training programme based on the department’s specific needs. This, says Watson, helped to “clarify DECC’s learning priorities”.

Watson says it was particularly important to make it clear the programme had been developed specifically for DECC, since it contained a wide range of courses from general delivery skills to DECC-specific knowledge. It has also been important to keep communications going as new courses or seminars become available. Permanent secretary Moira Wallace and the directors general have emphasised the importance of L&D, and the need for line managers to support staff development as much as possible, says Watson. DECC has also recently established an L&D network through which representatives of different business areas can both learn about new courses, and share their feedback on what training their staff most require to meet their team’s objectives.

Early indicators have been positive – feedback on the courses has, on average, been 85 per cent positive – but Watson says it will not be until after April that DECC can do a full evaluation and understand the full business impact of its work in this area.

Rising scores in HMRC - but falling participation
HMRC saw engagement scores rise in 2010 – but with the figure at 40 per cent, HMRC shares with the Department for Communities and Local Government the position of joint lowest-scoring department. For this reason, says Will Meehan, HMRC’s employee engagement senior manager, managers are “in no way complacent” about the results – but he does believe that the improvements suggest “that leaders and managers are working more with their people to address issues and concerns raised”, and that work to improve engagement is starting to pay dividends.

Another reason for caution is that the response rate for CSPS 2011 dropped significantly from 2010, from 69 to 52 per cent. Union concerns that senior leaders would be using local engagement scores as a factor in deciding office closures led to threatened boycotts from both the Association of Revenue and Customs and the PCS Union; HMRC managers appeared to wobble before maintaining that engagement scores would not help shape closures, and there may have been residual reluctance from employees to share their true attitudes.

Meehan says that the low response rate means that it’s wise to adopt “an element of caution” in interpreting the results, but explains that a few months before the people survey the department ran a smaller poll based on a random sample, and the results were very similar. “The [CSPS] results are statistically valid,” he says, but in any case they represent only a “moment in time”: the more important focus for him is how the department is progressing over time towards its target of matching and then beating the civil service’s average engagement score.

HMRC has been focusing on four general areas to improve engagement, says Meehan. Firstly, building strong leadership – the theme of leadership and managing change is “without a doubt” the greatest challenge facing HMRC, he believes. Secondly, supporting line managers so that they can address issues within their own teams. Thirdly, improving communications through a series of regular, site-based communication events, at which managers share both local and corporate news as well as gathering concerns from their teams. Finally, says Meehan, the ‘PaceSetter’ continuous improvement programme “empowers” employees and enables them to feel more involved in wider organisational improvement plans.

There are signs that the department is making progress against key concerns, Meehan believes, and the focus now is “building on that and doing it more consistently”. To this end, HR staff have identified the top 20 offices in terms of engagement, and interviewed their managers; they are now in the process of sharing the lessons learnt across the department. Meehan advises other engagement teams not to “use the CSPS data in a mechanistic way”: HMRC carried out further research using smaller surveys and focus groups to examine the factors shaping employees’ attitudes, and this was an “enormous help”. The CSPS “tells you what people think”, he says, but “as a leader you need to understand why they think that and what you can do differently”.

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