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Executive Summary

What is employee engagement, and why is it important? Employee engagement refers to the degree of enthusiasm and dedication toward their job. When employees are engaged, they feel a sense of value and demonstrate a deep level of care for their work. Ultimately, this leads to their commitment to the company’s success. High employee engagement can enhance talent retention, increase productivity, and improve business outcomes.

Leaders of private enterprises acknowledge the connection between employee engagement and better performance and invest time and effort into employee wellness, rightfully expecting significant ROIs. The DHS 2018 Best Places to Work ranking indicates that the DHS should follow suit. Devotion to employee engagement is especially salient for the DHS given the importance and impact of their mission on the safety and security of our nation. This white paper concludes that an integrated communications campaign could raise employee engagement and augment current efforts to create “One DHS”.

For this, Red Carrot proposes the following as the solution:

  • A creative campaign driven by a scientific process involving qualitative and quantitative research
  • A pilot campaign to test hypotheses on the causes and possible solutions for low agency morale
  • A refinement stage during which communication efforts can be coordinated with existing DHS and ICE programming
  • A compartment-wide launch of an integrated, refined campaign
  • Monitoring and thorough reporting to enable campaign evolution and show a positive change in employee engagement with internal and external stakeholders

Introduction: Employee Engagement and the Federal Context

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently earned the lowest Best Places to Work employee engagement rating for large government agencies. This 2018 rating was higher than it had been the previous year. Still, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEV), the basis of the rating, their employee engagement rating was 17th out of 17 large agencies surveyed. The DHS is working to improve internal controls and its service, but its approach has not yet achieved the desired outcomes. Consequently, a more careful consideration of employee engagement may be helpful.

According to a recent article in Forbes, employees who feel they have achieved a “positive work-life balance” are more productive and dedicated by 21 percent than those who feel they do not. A different study demonstrates 25 percent of employees who felt they lacked on-the-job support for a balanced life had plans to quit within two years. According to the Center for American Progress, the cost of replacing an employee average around 21 percent of their annual salary. In turn, good employee engagement can help keep costs down for enterprises.

Learning from the Private Sector

The DHS and federal agencies, in general, have not scored as favorably as private sector businesses in employee engagement surveys. According to the formula used by the Best Places to Work index, the DHS scored 53.1 out of 100 for employee engagement. Comparatively, the median score for all government agencies was 62.2. Meanwhile, private sector businesses scored a significantly higher average of 77.1. Employee engagement leads to increased profits, which the private sector has capitalized on. Thus, investing more in employee mental and emotional health should be a priority for the DHS on multiple levels.

This is an important trend the public sector should pay attention to. But beyond that, what does employee engagement mean in a federal context, and how can it be affected? What would indicate that creating this kind of change is necessary, and what kind of investment would it require? Flexible hours, peer support programs, or wellness incentives might create an uptick in employee satisfaction. However, meaningful cultural change will require more substantial, multi-level, and integrated work. This white paper investigates the conditions that require such steps and explains how they can be taken (specifically at the DHS ICE).

Increased Employee Engagement: A Low-Cost, High-Impact Solution

Speaking before a House Oversight subcommittee and bearing in mind the full impact of DHS’s proactive approach, Admiral Thad Allen advised that the Department’s success depends on “the real or perceived competency of the organization (internally and externally), and ultimately the understanding of the individual of their role and their value in that structure.” He explained the necessity to those employees’ understanding of their role and value. To achieve this, he opined there be “unambiguous communication by leaders on mission and core values.”

To affect a change in morale and boost employee engagement, work needs to be done on more than just the operational level. Importantly, addressing morale as a human communications issue is essential. Despite “pouring more resources than ever before into effectively overseeing and managing operations” being a positive and critical action, the Department could also create transformative impact with very few additional resources by investing in employee engagement.

The PPS uses federal agencies’ employee engagement scores to determine their ranking on the Best Places to Work list. It defines employee engagement as a reflection of the “satisfaction and commitment of the workforce and the willingness of its employees to put forth the discretionary effort to achieve results.” In turn, employee engagement may also determine the longevity of any DHS improvements resulting from operational changes. Ultimately, directly addressing and improving employee engagement is necessary to optimize DHS performance overall.

Case Study: Employee Engagement and Performance Improvement at VA Medical Centers

The Problem

VA Medical Centers serve more than nine million veterans annually and are integral to our national health care system. Like the DHS, they have a vital mission and role within our federal government. Recent research shows that while VA hospitals often offer superior medical care, they have lower patient satisfaction than non-VA hospitals. In fact, VA patients are measurably less likely to recommend VA hospitals than patients at non-VA hospitals.

Keith Repko and Sigrid Andrew, the newly instated leaders at the VA hospitals in St. Louis, Missouri, and Altoona, Pennsylvania, respectively, had inherited underperforming facilities with low employee engagement. They both successfully changed the course of their facilities. A PPS/ BCG study exploring the actions they took and the outcomes they achieved showed that Repko and Andrew’s efforts to foster employee engagement broke down into three basic steps. At their respective institutions, they each: 1) actively solicited employee feedback, 2) implemented plans based on what they learned, and 3) connected employees to the VA mission and recognized the value of their work towards achieving that mission.

The Solution

To actively solicit employee feedback from the staff at the Altoona VA Hospital, Andrew physically sat down with ten percent of her employees. She asked them what they thought she could do to manage their facility more effectively. She learned they often felt disrespected and even bullied by hospital management. In response, she did two things: First, she told them clearly and unambiguously that she understood what they had said and was doing something about it. Second, she designed and implemented training programs to develop better leaders.

In St. Louis, Repko focused on the annual VA All Employee Survey. Concluding that “you cannot have engaged staff if you don’t have engaging leaders,” he expanded available leadership training to include leaders at all levels, providing them with “opportunities to get together and learn about the soft skills, including how to develop relationships, build trust, and empower employees.” He also expanded his leadership training curriculum to ensure his leaders could interpret, respond to, and take appropriate action based on the survey’s results. In this way, Repko increased employee engagement in the short term and institutionalized his process to create long-term gains.

Key Takeaways

Key findings from the study indicate that as these medical centers’ employee engagement scores rose, their patient satisfaction rates went up, and registered nurse turnover declined. Call center answer speeds became faster, while unfinished and dropped calls decreased. In summary, according to the study’s analysis of the results of Repko and Andrew’s efforts, “employee engagement drives patient experience and the ability to retain mission-critical talent.” Notably, the new leaders at these two facilities created these high-impact changes at a low cost. The strategies implemented at the Altoona and St. Louis VA hospitals offer intriguing insights for the DHS and ICE and other agencies seeking to improve employee morale and agency performance.

Conclusions and Recommendations for Better Employee Engagement

Why consider a reflection on private-sector management when looking at a public-sector problem? As stated by the PPT, “The best private-sector organizations understand that improved employee engagement leads to better performance and improved outcomes…[and this] administration should aspire to meet the private-sector standard by focusing on supporting the federal workforce and improving the workplace culture.” For ICE this means:

  • actively soliciting employee feedback,
  • implementing plans based on that feedback,
  • helping employees feel connected to the ICE mission and recognized for the value of their work towards achieving that mission and ensuring the safety of our nation.

The Red Carrot approach to this challenge would embrace a 6-step scientific process shown to produce results:

Ongoing communication throughout this process will inform and update employees on our progress. By bringing employees into our research process, we steer them away from feeling like test subjects. The idea is for employees to feel like the co-creators of positive change in their workspace.

This holistic, process-oriented employee engagement approach represents a paradigm shift from traditional research models.

Red Carrot’s Scientific Research Process

We would launch our initial research phase with a deep analysis of the most recent FEVs. We would gather additional data from focus groups at major ICE locations, national engagement, specific surveys of ICE employees, and senior-leader engagement training. Next, our social science Ph.D. would devise open-ended qualitative research and follow that up with quantitative methods to validate results. Human-Centered Design (HCD) research of ICE employees would shed light on real, daily employee challenges. Studying a small sample representative of the broader population could help us target a few quick wins. Interviews with members of the Senior Executive Service would allow us to understand how feedback is received, processed, and actioned throughout the agency.

Ongoing Status Updates

During each phase, we would update ICE employees on the status of our research. For example, at the beginning of the research program, introductory emails would inform employees of the upcoming effort, its goals, and its limitations. Particularly as our research progresses, we would update employees on interim findings and upcoming changes based on our results. Such communication would inform employees and motivate them to participate. All communication would be submitted to ICE for pre-distribution approval.

Fundamental to this approach is ensuring that employees feel they have had opportunities to provide feedback. Each email will link to an online survey allowing employees to give feedback on the content and the communication.

Unlike a traditional employee engagement research program, our proposed approach will use the research program itself as a tool to make improvements. The key is to engage employees in the decisions that impact them.

Pilot Campaign Testing

Based on our analysis of our collected data, we would create a pilot campaign targeting the problem areas. The campaign would entirely depend on the research preceding it.

Measuring Success

Furthermore, the next step involves measuring the pilot campaign’s impact. This includes assessing messaging, creative content, and channels and linking them to engagement KPIs. We would integrate this data with FEVs and other research and determine optimizations by making adjustments.

Augmenting and Highlighting Efforts

Lastly, our final step before the launch would be to share our progress with directors and senior leaders at ICE. We would refine our campaign based on our research and integrate findings. This would allow us to augment and highlight current efforts.


We would continuously assess and measure campaign success alongside employee engagement KPIs during and after the launch. This would support the identification of opportunities to optimize our work further. Reports would consider various audiences. These would include ICE leadership and external parties interested in ICE’s employee engagement and the DHS’s Best Places to Work rating. The Red Carrot campaign aims to show an increase in employee engagement by using the DHS 2018 FEV score as a starting point.

About Red Carrot

Red Carrot, an 8(a) and woman-owned business, is distinguished by our proven federal experience and performance-driven processes. Our team is fueled by passion, backed by intelligence, and built on expertise. 

Red Carrot believes that there is always a better way. We solve our clients’ biggest Strategic Communications, Customer Experience, Management Consulting, and Human Capital challenges.

Red Carrot approaches challenges through our vetted processes based on industry best practices and proprietary data. We continuously explore innovative and often untapped perspectives. This constantly enhances the quality of our work. From our inception, we have stayed research-centric, data-informed, and customer-oriented while expanding our range of highly skilled capabilities. The Red Carrot team supports projects across multiple industries and government agencies. Our accolades include the On the Rise Government Contractor of the Year, Telly Awards, and Hermes Creative Awards.