Employee Engagement in Municipalities: Unique Challenges and Solutions


If the number of surveys and workshops we do for municipalities is any indicator, these organizations have been getting on the employee engagement bandwagon in a major way over the past several years. The case for higher employee engagement in municipalities is clear: higher productivity, better retention, lower absenteeism, better citizen/ratepayer experience, and the list goes on. Sounds great in theory, but in practice, I can tell you it is much more complex.  At TalentMap I have had, and continue to have, the opportunity to work with many municipalities in North America, ranging in size from small rural counties to some of North America’s major metropolises.  No matter the size of the local government, the sector has to deal with a number of common challenges in measuring and managing engagement. The following is are three of the key challenges, as well as some tips when dealing with them.

  1. Different Types of Employees in Different Locations. 

Emergency services, parks and recreation, finance, transit, policy, social services, and the list goes on. Unlike many businesses, where employees come from similar “white collar” backgrounds, municipalities must deal with employees of various backgrounds, education levels, computer access and literacy levels, as well as physical locations. Your first two challenges in measuring employee engagement are, a) developing a single questionnaire that is relevant to all of these groups – in a language-level they can all understand equally, and b) physically reaching employees in order to conduct the survey.

Actually, the first challenge isn’t as daunting as it seems, as most employees generally want and need the same things from their work environment (surprising, but true).  However, those in the survey business tend to write at a university grade-level, and care must be taken to have the questionnaire at an appropriate grade-level. More challenging is allowing everyone access. Many municipal employees don’t work at desks and many more don’t have ready access to computers. If they do, they tend to be home computers, and having employees complete this on personal time runs counter to many collective bargaining agreements.

What to do? In our experience, the most successful municipalities (those with the highest response rates) have done one or more of the following:

  • Ensure the survey is available on multiple electronic platforms, i.e. computer, tablet, phone. Most municipal employees carry a smartphone now wherever they are working, and a good (read: brief) survey can be completed on their phone during work periods (as long as supervisors are informed that this will take place).
  • If you can’t reach everyone electronically (which is infinitely better), ensure printed copies are available in as many collection points as possible (e.g. garages, equipment depots, etc.)
  • Spend twice as much time on communications about the survey before you launch the survey. Again, use multiple vehicles. At TalentMap we have e-mail templates, but we also use posters and other visuals which are placed in high traffic areas.
  • Also, we hold and record a webinar which goes into some detail about how we protect anonymity and confidentiality.  Don’t underestimate the level of suspicion that survey results will be divulged to managers, especially among unionized city workers.

  1. Managing Deep Silos. Most municipalities are organized around the different public services provided, and each service (e.g. police, fire, social services, transit, etc) are often unique organizations in and of themselves.  However, while in some cases specialized services are managed independently and conduct their own surveys (e.g police services), most of these departments work under the umbrella of the municipality, and often, need to interact with each other to some degree.

While the natural tendency of many department managers will be to focus on their own areas of responsibility, we know from experience that what drives engagement in a municipality tends to be similar across departments; and, a collaborative approach to improving engagement by focusing on the common engagement drivers is more effective than individual departments working independently.

What to do? When communicating employee engagement results to the organization, follow these steps:

  1. a) Present the organization-wide results to all managers before they receive their individual results
  2. b) Determine the action planning priorities based on the key drivers organization-wide, but provide latitude to departments to address specific issues of concern to them
  3. c) Convene a cross-department/cross-functional employee engagement working group to develop a series of organization-wide recommendations. This will also have an important team-building spin-off effect.
  4. Managing City Council. Another added complexity with regard to employee engagement in municipalities is managing council. In many municipalities we have assisted, councilors take an active interest in employee engagement; unfortunately, it is not always with the best intentions. Whether city councilors have a political motivation to discredit administration (as in some cases we have encountered), or whether they are truly motivated by city employees’ best interests, city council needs to be taken into account when designing and reporting on employee engagement.

How do we do this? While one would think that there are strict parameters around governance with regard to the relationship between council and administration, the practical reality is that each municipality is unique with regard to the desired level of involvement of council and councilors in employee engagement. Our best advice is to keep council informed as to the process (what’s going to happen, and when), and to arrange for your survey provider to present a high-level summary of results.  In our experience, using a neutral third-party tends to neutralize any potential concerns that results are incomplete or presented in a biased manner (favorable to administration). That being said, Administration should be ready to discuss follow-up “next steps”.

Finally, use the “newspaper headline” rule when deciding what to present. Don’t present anything council that you wouldn’t expect to see in the headlines the next day.

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