Efforts to change state’s employee culture moving forward

Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration plans this spring to begin asking follow-up questions to last summer’s survey of state employees, which showed many state workers really care about their jobs but feel their managers do a poor job of providing leadership.

Missouri Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann said Thursday the follow-up questions likely would involve “a sampling of, perhaps, a few thousand people” and would not be as comprehensive as last year’s original survey.

“We’re going to be focusing on a few key issues to see if we’re moving the needle, based on what we’re trying to do,” he explained.

Greitens and the 16 department directors have been working since October on ways to make those changes, Erdmann said during a meeting with reporters from the News Tribune and St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Thursday.

“An organization is healthy if it’s got three things,” he explained, listing them as a defined direction, the ability to execute decisions and being able to change.

Those principles apply whether the organization is a business or a government, he said.

“A political change at the top doesn’t change the basic operations of how things are working” in a given department, he said, although a change in political leaders “may have implications on the leadership that then focuses on management.”

Erdmann repeated a finding he’d emphasized in early February: “What the survey showed … is that we inherited a situation of years of systematic neglect from the management standpoint. … In some cases, it’s been over decades.”

And a change in management objectives won’t come overnight.

Over the years, he said, as managers have changed, they haven’t been trained on how to do their jobs or how to get their employees to do better jobs.

Erdmann added, “We have, for the first time, a shared management agenda that we’re trying to drive across 16 departments on certain fundamentals (and), at the same time, learn from one another.”

Missouri government employees took the original “Organizational Health Index” survey online between July 19 and Aug. 2, with around 75 percent of the 47,427 state employees surveyed providing answers to surveys that took about a half-hour to complete.

The survey was conducted by McKinsey & Company which has proprietary and intellectual property rights to the specific questions asked and to the employees’ answers to those questions.

However, Erdmann said, the results showed similar issues throughout all state departments, regardless of whether they report directly to the governor or are overseen by an independent commission.

And now all 16 department directors spend at least part of their Cabinet meetings talking about changes needed in the way state government operates.

“We’re trying to connect the dots on all the different things that we’re doing,” Erdmann said. “We’re trying to reinforce a common approach and vocabulary.”

Although the process is slow, he said, state administrators are already reporting some progress.

For example, the Department of Revenue’s income tax call center has improved its ability to answer calls as they come in, from as low as 20 percent last year to more than 90 percent this month.

“The people are more motivated (now) who are working in that call center,” Erdmann said — even though there’s been no change in the staff, their pay or the technology they have.

Office of Administration Commissioner Sara Steelman added, “The director, Joel Walters, (is) making people feel like their work matters, like they have value.”

One of the early changes was the state’s switch in personnel evaluation programs from the data-driven “Perform” system to “Engage” — which requires regular, structured, and professional development conversations between managers and the employees they supervise.

“Overall, the feedback is very positive,” Erdmann said. “So far, so good. I have not heard one voice that said, ‘Go back.’”

He said last summer’s survey showed 75 or 80 percent of state employees are willing to put more effort into their jobs, and they have a strong sense of personal accomplishment.

However, they want a better sense of direction, with better leadership.

“We are asking people to work differently,” he said, “and change the way the managers relate to the staff (and) the way the training is done. …

“Quite frankly, it’s also getting people to accept the idea that change is possible.”

Steelman said, “We want to make it sustainable so that, when we’re gone (from government), the (changes) are sustained for the administrations of the future.”