Executive Summary

Leaders of private enterprise acknowledge the connection between employee engagement and better performance, and they invest time and effort into employee wellness, rightfully expecting significant ROIs. The DHS 2018 Best Places to Work ranking indicates that given the importance and impact of the DHS’s mission on the safety and security of our nation, DHS should follow suit. This white paper offers an investigation into the historical context and causes for DHS’s low ranking and suggests steps to improve morale. It concludes that an integrated communications campaign could raise morale and augment current efforts to create “One DHS.”

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 could 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 to show positive change in employee engagement to 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, but according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEV) upon which the rating was based, their employee engagement rating was still 17th out of the 17 large agencies surveyed, as it had been in 2017. DHS is working to improve internal controls and the service they offer, but their approach to this problem has not yet achieved the desired outcomes. 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 that 25 percent of employees who felt they lacked on-the-job support for a balanced life had plans to quit in the next two years. According to the Center for American Progress, the cost of replacing an employee averages around 21 percent of their annual salary.

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 Best Places to Work index (explained in detail below) the DHS scored a 53.1 out of 100 for employee engagement – the median score for all government agencies was 62.2 – while private sector business scored the significantly higher average of 77.1. Employee engagement leads to increased profits, which the private sector has been capitalizing on. Thus, investing more in employee mental and emotional health should be a priority for DHS on many levels.

This is an important trend that 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-hour plans, peer support programs, or wellness incentives might be enough to create an uptick in employee satisfaction, but meaningful cultural change will require more substantial, multi-level, and integrated work. This white paper offers an investigation of the conditions (specifically at the DHS) that would require such steps, and an explanation of how those steps can be taken.

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 went on to explain how it is of critical importance to those employees’ understandings of their role and their value that there be “unambiguous communication by leaders on mission and core values.” To affect a change in morale, work needs to be done on more than just the operational level: morale needs to be addressed as a human communications issue. Even though “pouring more resources than ever before into effectively overseeing and managing operations” is a positive and important action, the Department could also affect transformative impact with very few additional resources by investing in employee engagement.

The PPS, which uses federal agencies’ employee engagement scores to determine their ranking on the Best Places to Work list, defines employee engagement as a reflection of the “satisfaction and commitment of the workforce and the willingness of its employees to put forth discretionary effort to achieve results.” Employee engagement, in turn, may also determine the longevity of any DHS outcomes improvements resulting from operational changes. Ultimately, in order to optimize DHS performance overall, employee engagement must be directly addressed and improved.

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

VA Medical Centers serve more than nine million veterans each year and are an integral part of our national health care system. Like DHS, they have an immensely important 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, and 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, and 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 the work they did towards achieving that mission.

To actively solicit employee feedback from the staff at the Altoona VA, Andrew physically sat down with ten percent of her individual employees and 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 that she 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 that his leaders were all equipped to interpret, respond to, and take appropriate action based on the survey’s results. In this way, Repko not only increased employee engagement in the short term, but he also institutionalized his process to create long-term gains.

Key findings from the study indicate that as these medical centers’ employee engagement scores rose, their patient satisfaction rates went up, registered nurse turnover declined, and 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 hospital offer intriguing insights for the DHS and other agencies seeking to improve employee morale and agency performance.

Conclusions and Recommendations

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 placing a focus on supporting the federal workforce and improving the workplace culture.” For ICE, this means actively soliciting employee feedback, implementing plans based on that feedback, and helping employees feel connected to the ICE mission and recognized for the value of the work they do 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 six-step process will inform and update employees of our progress. By bringing employees into our research process, we steer them away from feeling like test subjects and towards feeling like the co-creators of positive change in their workspace.

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

We would launch Step 1, our initial research phase, with a deep analysis of the most recent FEVs. We would also 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, while the study of 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 help us to understand how feedback is received, processed, and actioned throughout the agency.

During each phase, we would update ICE employees with 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. As our research progresses, we would update employees of interim findings and the 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 – and that their feedback has been heard. Each email sent will link to an online survey allowing employees to provide feedback on both the content of the communication as well as the communication itself.

Unlike a traditional employee engagement research program, our proposed program will use the research program itself as a tool to help improve employee engagement. The key to increasing employee engagement is to engage employees in the decisions that impact them, and our research plan integrates that into the program.

During Step 2, based on our analysis of our collected data, we would create a pilot campaign targeting one or two of the problem areas we identify in the above research. The campaign would entirely depend on the research that preceding it, but the two examples below provide an idea of how we might proceed.

In Step 3, we would measure the results of our pilot campaign, assessing the impact of our messaging, the creative content, and the channels used. We would connect these variables to engagement KPIs focused on our target areas, integrate that data with the FEVs and other research, and determine if and how our campaign could be adjusted for optimized results.

Our final step before 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 into our campaign existing ICE employee engagement or change management initiatives, allowing us to augment and highlight current efforts.

During and after the launch, we would continuously assess and measure campaign success alongside employee engagement KPIs. This would support identification of opportunities to further optimize our work and facilitate production of reports on the success of our program. Reports would be composed with multiple audiences in mind: in addition to ICE leadership, reports would also address external audiences invested in employee engagement at ICE—and in DHS’s Best Places to Work employee engagement rating. By taking the DHS 2018 FEVs score as our baseline, a Red Carrot strategic communications campaign would ultimately be able to to inform all stakeholders of improved Best Places to Work standings and a demonstrable improvement in employee engagement.

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.