If you are a Texas resident, you most likely have been to a driver’s license office. Or used a state-inspected elevator. Or visited a state park. But, did you know that all these state agencies connect back to the School of Social Work? “How,” you may ask.
Meet the researchers at the school’s Institute for Organizational Excellence (IOE).
“We work to improve state government. Every two years, we survey every employee in every agency in the state of Texas. We ask about everything, from how satisfied and engaged with their job they are to what they think about supervision, training, benefits, and so on. The survey allows us to gather opinions and insights across the state, and pull it all together for each agency,” explains Noel Landuyt, IOE director.
Texas is the only state in the nation with an ongoing and comprehensive employee engagement survey like this. Results are shared with all parts of the Texas government, from the governor’s office to the legislature.
“The government of Texas has been using our survey’s data to promote positive change for more than three decades now,” says Michael Lauderdale, IOE founder and Clara Pope Willoughby Centennial Professor in Criminal Justice at the School of Social Work. “Our work has tremendous impact on how state agencies utilize resources to address the concerns that employees bring up, and to become better places to work.”
A measure of the survey impact is that results are included in the workforce summaries that the state auditor produces for each agency for use during the legislative session (see for instance IOE data on the state auditor’s workforce summaries).
“These summaries are very concise, only two pages, and so the state is very selective as to what is included. We are very proud that our survey’s scores and benchmarks are featured and seen by every legislator in Texas,” Landuyt says.
It All Started with a Governor’s Request
The survey started in 1979 as a specific request of governor William Clements, who wanted to know how employees felt about working for the state of Texas—something they had never been asked before.
In his book Reinventing Texas Government, Lauderdale explains that Clements came to the governorship with experience in the private sector, where job satisfaction and employee morale surveys were conducted as a matter of course. He also approached government as a business that needed fixing, for which you first had to identify where the problems were. For Clements, Lauderdale writes, survey data “was like one set of instruments on the dashboard that told the driver how the car was running.”
Peter Flawn, president of The University of Texas at Austin at the time, connected Clements to the School of Social Work as the place with the research expertise to accomplish the task.
“It might seem strange today, but business was not really there yet,” Landuyt says. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s, you really didn’t have organizational development coming from the business school, or human resources as a developed discipline. But at social work you did have the knowledge and ability to do assessments, create questions, administer surveys, and process data.”
Lauderdale and Martha Williams, a professor and later dean of the School of Social Work, designed the first version of the survey. The main goal was to determine if employee satisfaction varied among ethnic groups, pay grades, and gender. The survey was administered to about ten thousand employees randomly drawn from about a dozen of the largest state agencies, and was scheduled every two years, to coincide with the biennial budget of the state.
During the 1980s, tumbling oil prices meant declining business activity and plummeting tax revenues in Texas.
“What is interesting is that during these hard times, even as the governor’s office shifted between Democrats and Republicans, they all shared the perception that state government was growing in responsibilities and was an important part of the mix that would help the state develop new jobs and business,” Lauderdale says. “At the same time, there was an increased emphasis on making government work better and more efficiently, on doing more with less.”
State agencies were required to create budgets based on performance measures. Agencies were directed to use the survey developed by Lauderdale and Williams as an assessment of human resources.
By 1993, it was clear that the survey was due for an update. Lauderdale led the effort, which included moving from a sampling strategy to a census approach, and hence asking all employees of an organization to complete the survey. Technological changes also played a part. Surveys were optically scanned, which shortened the delivery of results from months to days. And wider Internet access helped to disseminate results faster, as non-confidential statistical data could be loaded onto a server to be shared.
Lauderdale also set to work on increasing employees’ buy-in. Each survey was accompanied by a letter, signed by Lauderdale and the agency’s head, explaining the importance of the endeavor and including a phone number in case employees had any questions.
“There were days that I received dozens of calls,” Lauderdale recalls. “In many cases, employees just wanted to check that the person signing the letter was real! Questions about confidentiality were also common. And almost everyone wanted to know whether anything would really happen with the results. These questions were very telling about issues that many agencies had to address.”
The efforts paid off. By 1996-1997, response rates jumped from 32 to 52 percent, showing that state employees saw the survey as a useful tool to express their opinions and voice their concerns. Around the same time, at the urging of the governor and the legislature, all state-supported organizations were expected to participate in the survey.
“The growth of our survey shows an increasing orientation in the state of Texas toward building high levels of quality and responsibility in every organization,” Lauderdale reflects. “In eighteen years, our survey evolved from a tool to address one governor’s concern about employee attitudes to a tool endorsed by all governors from both parties and by the leadership of the Texas legislature.”
Creating Public Trust
In 1999 the Texas legislature passed the Customer Service Standards Act, which required all state agencies to assess customer and client attitudes and report results as a part of their respective strategic plans.
“Because of the work with the employee survey, we are also a resource for this assessment. We don’t do nearly the volume that we do for employees because the state uses many different vendors. But we serve several large agencies, including the Texas Workforce Commission and the Department of Public Safety,” Landuyt says.
The Department of Public Safety (DPS) actually provides a good example of the impact and significance of IOE work.
“The legislature gave money to DPS to create a new and better system for driver license offices, as they are notorious for having bad lines,” Landuyt explains. “They were moving towards creating mega-centers that used technology to pull people through the lines more quickly. We have been working with DPS since 1999, so they asked us to come and do a special assessment of customer perception of the mega-centers.”
Study results showed that time spent at the mega-center was the main driver of customer satisfaction. They also showed that even when taking time out of the equation, mega-centers still increased the perception of satisfaction among customers.
“We were able to show the legislature that their investment dramatically improved the ability of this agency to satisfy citizens and provide outstanding service,” Landuyt says. “The interesting part for us is that in the midst of the current pessimistic attitude about governmental services, we were showing that the mega-centers actually increased citizens’ public trust in that agency to do a good job.”
For the IOE team, this is the key to the survey work they do with state agencies. All those seemingly dry survey results are actually measuring something almost intangible called social capital—a concept made popular in the social sciences and civic work by sociologist Robert Putnam.
“Social capital refers to the quality of interactions among individuals within organizations and in the community,” Lauderdale explains. “To the extent that people trust each other and are willing to provide help when needed, high social capital exists. High social capital results in greater safety, prosperity, health, and innovation.”
“Industries take this incredibly seriously. They know that the level of engagement of their employees has a direct impact on how much money they make, and they know that they have to be attuned to how satisfied their customers are. State agencies are not different, except that their end goal is increasing public trust and reciprocity with the citizenry instead of increasing profits,” Landuyt adds.
Training the next generation
Since the survey was first administered in 1979, much has changed in Texas. The state has experienced tremendous growth in population and prosperity, and faced the challenges that come with such growth. Lauderdale and Landuyt want to make sure that, just as in 1979, social work continues to be a resource for leaders seeking to improve organizations—both in the public and private sectors.
“What we do might not seem like social work at first sight, but it’s actually one hundred percent social work. We are doing assessments, we are doing interviews, and we are determining an intervention strategy that best fits data-driven decision-making. It does not get more social work than this,” Landuyt says.
“We want to make sure that our graduates bring the tools they learn from macro-practice research such as the survey to the hundreds of private and public organizations out there,” Lauderdale concludes. “In this way, we exponentially multiply the efforts to build trust and responsibility within organizations and with clients and citizens.”
– By Andrea Campetella