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Business Journal
Transforming Government
Business Journal

Transforming Government

The General Services Administration is showing that it's possible to move beyond transactions to transformations. Here's how one manager is doing it.

by Jennifer Robison

Most organizations' employee engagement programs will never affect you. Unless you're a customer or stockholder, you may never know -- or care -- if a given company's employees are more engaged, productive, or efficient.

Banks is a firecracker. She's bold, she's an innovator, and she's ten steps ahead of most managers.

But you should probably care about how engaged the employees are at the General Services Administration (GSA). That's because the GSA assists other federal agencies to serve the public by offering value, superior workplaces, expert solutions, acquisition services, and management policies. GSA also builds federal buildings, courthouses, and border stations; procures millions of commodities, services, and systems; and provides economical telecommunications and network services for the federal government.

Oh, and GSA helps federal agencies collect taxes, fight wars, establish laws, provide healthcare and educational benefits, and combat terrorism. Clearly, the engagement of GSA's 14,000 associates worldwide has more effect on you than you can probably imagine.

GSA management knows this. This is why, in 2000, they implemented a program that helps organizations improve employee engagement -- Gallup's Q12 IMPACT -- in parts of the agency. By the end of 2002, all GSA associates had an opportunity to participate in the annual Q12 engagement survey, and the 2002 GSA scores were at the 69th percentile of all private and public sector organizations.

GSA's success offers a model not just for other government agencies, but also for managers across industries and sectors who want to boost employee engagement.


In fact, managers would do well to note the work of Marcella Banks, the assistant regional administrator of the Federal Technology Service (FTS), Greater Southwest Region, whose customers include civilian and military agencies and the Native American community.

"Banks is a firecracker. That's the best way to describe her," says Bernadine Karunaratne, the Gallup managing consultant for GSA. "She's bold, she's an innovator, and she's ten steps ahead of most managers. She is transforming her workplace."

Karunaratne says that Banks is creating a legacy at GSA, and her workgroup's Q12 scores show it: They are consistently among GSA's highest -- and among the highest Gallup has ever measured. One of the foundations of that legacy is a particular notion of change. Banks is a believer in transformational -- rather than transactional -- change.

"Transactional change is reacting in the same old way. We manage the same, perform the same. We carry out our day-to-day functions by reacting and sometimes with little thought or much change," Banks says. "Transformational actions would mean that we markedly change the way we do business, the way we function, the way we treat each other, and the customer care we provide."

Change begins

About four years ago, Banks began leading the charge. Although management had been successful up to that point, it was evident to them that they needed to rethink their business model. FTS had to restructure itself inside-out, while its associates had to change the way they worked, the way they thought of themselves, and the way they related to each other, to their industry, and to their customers.

Implementing such profound change was -- as it usually is -- challenging, painful, and difficult. But Banks remained undaunted. "I hoped to bring about change with as little pain as possible," she says.

"Our vision was that we would organize around the customer and be located as close to the customer as possible," Banks says. "Customer service and our associates would be foremost in our minds."

FTS established a Strategic Board of Directors and six customer service teams. Then FTS associates changed the processes that stood between them and their customers and eliminated "silos" of activities and accountability. To provide the best customer service, FTS had to learn about itself in its entirety.

"It was important to provide total solutions for our customers. To do this, all of us had to learn as much about our total business as possible," Banks says. "We established goals and measures, and we held people accountable. Our goals align with the GSA goals and President Bush's management agenda. We strive for continuous improvement."

Asking the right questions

Banks was not very familiar with Q12 until all of GSA began using Gallup's 12-item survey that measures employee engagement. Immediately upon learning that GSA would participate in the survey, Banks and her fellow supervisors boned up on Q12. They read and studied First Break All the Rules, Gallup's exploration of how great managers drive engagement.

"We went over the questions and began the thought process," Banks says. "We asked many questions, like 'What does this mean to me? How can I be a part of the process? How can I be a part of the improvements?' We spent a lot of time educating our management and associates about Q12 and the differences between associate satisfaction and engagement."

When the FTS teams got their Q12 scores back, they celebrated, took a deep breath, and started the next transformational act: They talked to each other -- and they talked, and they talked, and they talked.

"We discussed the results during staff meetings, during associate meetings, and any other opportunity we had," Banks says. "Each group developed action plans. We discussed these actions during our leadership sessions. Managers discussed these action plans during meetings with their associates. Our supervisors used the Q12 questions as an outline for performance appraisal discussions. Prior to participating for a second year in the Q12 survey, we held another associate meeting."

New and improved

They talked and learned until they had collectively become something new, something better, and something more engaged. All the talking created a management philosophy that's gaining ground in every aspect of American business.

"We want to be a single entity, not a bunch of little empires. Our agenda is the same. We want each associate to be the best he or she can be," Banks says. So FTS became a master of "soft" skills, such as recognition, accountability, the encouragement of development, individual latitude, clear expectations, and knowledge sharing. As Banks says, "We strive for a place where it is okay to take reasonable risks and where we learn from failures. We also believe in having fun."

Since implementing the Q12 process, FTS' business has jumped more than 112%, but operating expenses have increased only 4%.

One of FTS' key measures is customer satisfaction. FTS' goal is to achieve at least a 4 rating (on a 5-point scale) on their transactional/event-driven satisfaction survey. This year, ratings are hovering around 4.80. Each rating lower than 5 is discussed with the customer to determine what needs to be done to improve customer service.

And FTS' Q12 scores? With 100% of the associates in this group participating in the survey, the organization as a whole increased its employee engagement scores almost 10%; one group's overall engagement levels rose more than 90%. Overall employee engagement scores for the workgroups within the FTS in the Greater Southwest Region place them in the 99th percentile in employee engagement in the 2002 Q12 database.

According to Karunartne, "At Gallup, we consider the 75th percentile to be workgroups that are 'best in class.' But at the 99th percentile, your employees can boast that their workgroup is truly the best of the best -- because it's absolutely world-class."

FTS associates in the Greater Southwest Region are among the most engaged, productive, and satisfied of any group of workers in America. This hasn't gone unnoticed. "I am fortunate to have a great bunch of associates working with me -- in fact, the greatest with whom I have ever worked. I take pride in their accomplishments. I want each one to succeed," Banks says. "I want us to do everything possible to make their lives easier. After all, associates give their best and spend a lot of their time contributing to our successes. Associates are our most valuable assets. Any investment in our human capital will be returned to us manyfold."

Indeed, as Banks says with pride of her associates: "Where would the federal government be without them?"


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