Employee Engagement Surveys in the APS : The ATO in focus

I recently received a copy of one of the Taxation Office's engagement survey reports via snail mail from an unknown source. Such surveys are conducted in a variety of Australian Public Service agencies. The purpose of this post is to examine key aspects of the Taxation Office's report and share some observations.


The first matter to consider is the Taxation Office's views on organisational culture and employee engagement. Consider diagram from the report.


What this diagram shows is that the leadership of the Taxation Office takes the view that they create the culture and that by doing so that they create employee engagement. In essence this is a top down model which, considering that building and maintain organisational culture is a social activity, is a flawed approach.


One of the interesting aspects of the report is the response rate of 77%. This is high and is partly a function of the work I did within the Taxation Office which resulted employees being used to completing online surveys.


However, what is of concern in relation to the engagement survey is the fact that only 48% of staff responded favourably to the item 'Confidence in the Survey Process'. The other 52% of staff obviously have a different view. However, data showing unfavourable responses for this item is not included in the report.


From my conversations with staff, this is why they see the reports provided as little more than corporate spin. The fact that 52% of staff apparently lack confidence in the survey process itself does, in the absence of further information, raise doubts about the veracity of the survey results.


Being a researcher myself and having been privy to how the Taxation Office manages communication in relation to the survey I must say that I completely agree with the view that the Taxation Office resorts to spin with the deliberate intent of emphasising positive feedback and minimising negative feedback.


The entire internal communications regime for the survey is focused on the 'cascading down' (love the language) of messages and data. Taxation Office overview, sub plan reports and line reports. Managers are carefully prepared to ensure the corporate focus and direction is supported. Taxation Office staff have clearly conveyed to me that they do not see the whole picture and are drip fed information.


What I also notice is the 'cherry picking' of comments. About 19,000 comments were made and have not been published. Indeed, part way through the survey process a message was sent to managers telling them to remind staff of their obligations under the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct when making comments in the survey form. This is controlling behaviour designed to discourage people from saying exactly how they feel.


To be fair some of the results are good. in the main these are the obvious ones. Pay, conditions and relationships within teams. Responses to other survey questions are not favourable. For example, senior management consideration of the impact of decisions on staff and the management of change.


Most telling only 26% of staff feel the Taxation Office will change for the better over the next year. Understandably 86% of staff are proud of the contribution they make through their work to the community and society.


As to the overall engagement profile of the the Taxation Office these are not particularly good with 43% of staff being actively engaged. 29% of staff are passively engaged, 16% aligned but disenfranchised and 12% disengaged.


Overall, it is fair to say that what is striking is the Taxation Office's lack of openness with even its' own staff on the full picture and the comments made. This is very much a function of the excessively controlling corporate sub-culture of the place.


I fail to see why there should not be greater openness about these results. Including sharing them with the community. And isn't it unrealistic to expect that the results will remain in-house when the reports, such as they are, are available to just over 22,000 people.


I do question the survey methodology and the 'top down' foundations of the entire exercise. I get the distinct impression that many people have simply given up and have the view that the leadership of the Taxation Office will just do what it wants anyway. By definition culture building is social, not an exercise in omnipotence.


It is also worth noting that the survey results were submitted to the survey providers database on 16 December 2011. Quantitative data could have been released to staff months ago and the conversation opened up across the organisation. That would have been a culture building exercise in itself.


I will endeavour to put the rest of the data from the report I have into a spreadsheet over the next week.





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Comment by Graham Gourlay on May 6, 2012 at 5:58pm

As Steve points out, key to strengthening engagement after an engagement survey is to share the data collected with the staff and invite them to make their own meaning of - and help each other to understand - the data, its implications for their area.  Engagement grows from people being genuinely engaged in identifying issues, challenges, opportunities and collaborating in improving things that they choose to work on.  They need to feel treated like valued, trusted adults capable of finding and fixing their own gaps, enhancements, etc.  I don't see that the ATO gets this.  It acts like a patronising nanny state; we'll tell you what the problem areas are and we'll drive & coordinate action to fix them, little people!  Doesn't it?

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