How’s work going?

Not so good for the civil service

Recently I ordered a single-shot espresso at a well-known coffee shop. It was handed to me in a medium paper cup, where it looked like tobacco juice on the bottom of a large white spittoon. Puzzled, I looked at the server who–as if to demonstrate what an alienated employee looks like– merely shrugged.Grey-Gear-patrol-

Geez, I thought, what if the NS civil service was like that? Does government measure that sort of thing, I asked?

It turns out the Public Service Commission does it with a survey called “How’s Work Going?” and the results are discouraging.

“Employee engagement” has dropped 21 per cent since 2007, 23 per cent since 2009. It’s something the provincial government defines as “the extent to which individuals feel connected to and involved with their jobs and their organization.”

Here at Turpin Labs, engagement means you get your espresso in a ceramic cup so it can be properly savoured.

Every two years the PSC sends a survey about the workplace to each of its 10,000 employees. It then weights the answers to come up with an employee engagement “index”. An index of 60 denotes an engaged workforce; anything below, not so much. In 2017, the index hit 57.

Main engagement chart June 30, 2018
It’s tempting to correlate the numbers above with the reigning political party at the time the surveys were done. However, there is not enough (public) data to support that idea. Because the surveys are conducted every two years, changes will inevitably coincide with changes of government, whether or not there is a cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, if the real cause was vampires sucking the blood from civil servants, this graph might look exactly the same. The best that can be said is that employee engagement has dropped about 21% since 2007 and 23% since it peaked in 2009 during Rodney MacDonald’s Conservative government.  SOURCE:

Brian Taylor, a media relations advisor for the PSC, wrote the following in response to my query about this:

“… In 2011, the areas of engagement identified as needing the most improvement were Leadership Practices, Clear Expectations and Directions, and Recognition. 

“Downward trending employee engagement is a phenomenon that is being observed across the country in both the public and private sector. The Nova Scotia Public Service is actively looking deeper into what employees need to feel satisfied and engaged. We have increased our focus on engaging the ‘whole’ person by looking at solutions that take into account work life balance, enhancing communication and relationships, provide support beyond the workplace and ensure employees have the right training and development to build leadership.”

I like the PSC because it walks the talk on employee training, but it has to be said there’s nothing new in that last sentence. And, in 2017, employee engagement in Canada experienced an uptick.

As noted in the chart caption, you cannot attribute changes in the index to specific events, such as elections or vampire attacks. But the trend is undeniable: the index has steadily declined since it peaked at 74 under Rodney MacDonald’s Conservative government. We know there is a problem, but we don’t know why.

So, Turpin Labs’ award-winning Analytical Division decided to search for similar trends among the answers to particular questions in the survey. The result is below.

Picture3 question trends
The Turpin Labs analysts found two questions where the answers followed a trend comparable to the engagement index. In some years the data was unavailable or omitted because the question was changed. What’s notable are the similar trend lines, not the values; however it’s a safe bet the “I feel valued” responses dragged down the overall index.                                      SOURCE:

The units of measurement for the questions over the past 10 years can be vague, but the trends are not. The chart shows the trends for the overall engagement index and the response to “I am proud to tell people I work for the Government of Nova Scotia” track closely. The same can be said for “Overall, I feel valued as a Government of Nova Scotia employee”, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that question drags down the overall index.

I am not coddling civil servants here. Everybody wants to feel they are valued by their employer.

“Hmm,” you say. “That’s all well and good, Bill. But has Turpin Labs taken the trouble to compare responses from various departments?”

Yes, it has. Below is a gorgeous, two-coloured chart showing the results.

Picture2 departmental comparison

(Beauty, eh?)

It’s noteworthy that Nova Scotia Environment has dropped from a government-leading 72 in 2007 to the bottom of the heap, at 43, in 2017. Assigning a new minister to the department in January 2017 may have been intended to help. If so, the question was rendered moot last Thursday when the previous minister was returned to the post.

The Department of Justice, recently criticized for dismal conditions at the Burnside jail, has dropped to 50 from 72 since 2007.

Your correspondent worked for seven years in Nova Scotia’s civil service, mostly in the environment department, before capturing the CEO position at Turpin Labs. I learned the civil service is pretty much like any large workplace–it has the usual mix of slugs, high-performers and people who need to be motivated. If I had to characterize civil servants, I would say they work hard and believe strongly in the public good. Frustration, not laziness, is the main enemy of high performance.

My biggest shock, however, was seeing the importance of a good minister. A good deputy minister is also essential, but the secret sauce for an effective department is a minister who knows how to lead. Who knew?

More on this in future posts.







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