Making Employee Engagement a Management Priority

Next up in our blog series highlighting new efforts, and new ideas across the Department of Health and Human Services to improve the way we work, features the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Mark Greenberg, ACF’s Acting Assistant Secretary, shares about their agency’s efforts to make employee engagement a management priority.

At a high level and for those who are unfamiliar, how does the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) promote the economic and social well-being of families, children, individuals and communities?

The Administration for Children and Families seeks to promote the economic and social well-being of families, children, individuals and communities. We have federal responsibility for more than 60 programs, with a budget of $53 billion, and about 1,300 employees in a central office and 10 regional offices. The programs we administer include Head Start, child care, child support, child welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, programming for runaway and homeless youth and victims of domestic violence, refugee assistance, the unaccompanied children program, the Community Services Block Grant, the Social Services Block Grant, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, the Assets for Independence Program, assistance to trafficking victims and more. We work with States, Tribes, Head Start agencies, Community Action agencies, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations, and we provide research, training, technical assistance and Federal leadership in support of ACF’s mission and responsibilities.

What triggered your current efforts to make employee engagement a management priority at ACF?

I became Acting Assistant Secretary in 2013. When we received and reviewed the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) scores for ACF early in 2014, it was clear that there was much room for improvement. ACF staff are strongly committed to the goals and mission of ACF, but had a wide range of concerns, including ones about training, supervision, communication, participation and transparency in decision-making. After reviewing our FEVS scores, we initiated a set of focus groups, and took a number of immediate steps — establishing all-staff meetings, restoring training funds that had been cut under severe budget pressure and expanding staff and supervisory training, strengthening internal communications. Over the next year, we initiated a number of ways to encourage ACF staff to express their views about how we could improve ACF. We:

  • Established an anonymous electronic suggestion box;
  • Held a week in which everyone was invited to “tweet” their recommendations;
  • Expanded senior staff meetings to include additional staff from program and regional offices;
  • Created a monthly opportunity for staff to sign up to meet with me;
  • Focused extensively on employee engagement in the context of a move for all ACF DC staff to a new office location; and
  • Created an ACF Deputies group with a strong focus on improving ACF management

In addition, we had our workforce office meet with each ACF office to do a detailed debrief on office-level FEVS results and asked all offices to develop plans for how to be responsive to issues that arose in their FEVS scores. Finally, we formed an internal communications work group made up of representatives from a cross section of ACF offices to assess our current internal communications and make recommendations for improvements. And, we worked with the National Treasury Employees’ Union to establish an ACF Labor-Management Committee.

You have laid out 4 management priorities relating to employee engagement for 2015-2016.  How did you and your team determine these priorities?

Based largely on the feedback we got from staff, we articulated four management priorities for 2015-2016:

  1. Improve the hiring process
  2. Strengthen training and professional development
  3. Develop a system for feedback on supervisory performance and invest in supervisory performance
  4. Strengthen attention to work-life issues at ACF

ACF’s Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg participates in a panel discussion.These four areas arose repeatedly in talking with and hearing from ACF staff, and we thought it was important to make a clear commitment to address them. We think we’re making significant progress in all four areas, but are committed to doing more in 2016.

Given limited resources available for training and development in general, through your current efforts, how are you able to accommodate and meet the development needs of ACF’s workforce?

Although we were able to expand training funding, we know it’s only meeting part of the need. So we need to look more closely at the quality of current training, what we should do more or less of, and what we should do differently. Our Office of Workforce Planning and Development recently invited all staff to participate in a training assessment. We will be releasing the results to all staff and acting on what we learned. We’ve also tried to tailor specific trainings based on the needs of individual offices and will continue these efforts this year. One important point that emerged in conversations with ACF staff is that formal training is only one part of learning and professional development in an organization. In 2016, we’re planning to expand developmental details, i.e., opportunities for ACF staff to work in different parts of ACF for several months and learn more about another office and its programs. We are also creating “communities of practice” groups where staff can be connected with others doing similar work in different parts of ACF. And, we recently created a new position — Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning, Research and Evaluation. We’ve asked the new Deputy to spend her first 90 days having conversations in and out of ACF and make recommendations for what we need to do to become a true “learning organization.”

Having launched efforts to improve ACF’s internal culture, thus far what would you consider your biggest win?  What hasn’t worked and what would you do differently?   Are there any other insights you would like to share?

This fall, we established a requirement that every supervisor in ACF, including all of Senior Leadership, participate in a 360 review process, followed by a session with a skilled coach to review results. We did this because we understand that supervision is a challenging responsibility and supervisors need more support. At the same time, I think one of the key needs in a hierarchical organization is to provide a safe way for staff to provide constructive feedback to supervisors about how to do better. Over the next six months, all ACF supervisors will go through the 360 process and we look forward to learning from it. After we complete this process, we plan to identify the most critical supervisor competencies that need attention, and develop formal and informal training opportunities to improve those competencies. Our greatest continuing challenge is the hiring process — it takes too long, we lose good candidates along the way, and we’re often not able to hire the most qualified people. Part of this is within our control, and part of it isn’t. Within ACF, we’ve improved data tracking to analyze bottlenecks, devolved authority to program offices so that they can make decisions more rapidly, made use of a committee of Office Deputy Directors to share insights and strategies and to raise concerns to the Department and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) about aspects of the process within their control. Overall, we’ve cut the average time to hire in half, but it’s still much too long, and that has an impact on productivity and morale. We have to find ways to do better. My biggest insight may be an obvious one: ACF’s staff values and is proud of the work we do. However, in a large bureaucratic organization, too often, people believe that there’s no way for them to be heard, and that if they raise concerns, nothing will change. So, I think it’s crucial to institutionalize an organizational commitment to listening and then acting based on what we’ve heard, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Interested in other employee engagement examples within HHS?  Check out our recent post with strategic advice from the Office of the Assistant Secretary on Planning and Evaluation. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]