It is no secret that improving employee engagement can lead to positive workplace outcomes. Our analysis found that employee engagement could impact another critical government objective—public trust. It is worth delving deeper into this relationship.
The contact centre at the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) faced a dual crisis: rising customer dissatisfaction and a nearly 200 per cent attrition rate among its contact centre employees. The bureau was alarmed that some disengaged employees frequently used negative language with customers, such as “I can’t do that,” rather than positive language, such as “Let me look into that.” Worse, some provided wrong information to rush customers off the phone.
The bureau realised that in order to improve customer experience, it was critical to improve the employee experience. Armed with this insight, the bureau set about streamlining the scheduling process, offering more breaks to employees and improving training, among other interventions. Improving scheduling processes gave employees greater flexibility and training helped provide the skills needed to meet one of the contact centre’s key missions—customer satisfaction. These changes served as important levers that helped improve employees’ experience at work. As a result, within the first month of implementing these changes, customer satisfaction at the BMV had skyrocketed to 92 per cent.1
The Indiana BMV story points to an interesting link between employee engagement and customer satisfaction, and subsequently, public trust—more engaged workers tend to work better, and better work typically gives citizens greater trust in an agency’s competence. Employees are often the face of government for citizens. From visiting the local DMV office to interacting with law enforcement or navigating airport security to using the nearest postal service office, constituents continuously interact with government employees. So how government employees convey themselves is likely to have an outsized impact on citizens’ perceptions of government.
If employees offer good services quickly, citizens are likely to think better of government’s competence. If employees are empathetic and listen to citizens’ needs or complaints, citizens are more likely to see government acting from a place of positive intent. Since competence and intent are key ingredients in individuals’ perceptions of trust, the quality of these interactions can have a bearing on public trust.
Current data indicates that trust in government has been falling. After reaching an all-time high in the 1960s, public trust in the US government has been on a perpetual decline—and was at 24 per cent in 2021 (figure 1).2
How can governments address this problem of declining trust? Are there targeted steps governments can take to rebuild trust? In practice, assessing trust and the factors behind it can be tricky, as trust reflects an individual’s perception. Trust is the combination of beliefs, perceptions and feelings shaped by our individual and collective experiences. In general, however, trust is a function of repeated successful interactions between the customer or constituents (in this case) and the service provider or government agency.
With this conceptualisation, Deloitte surveyed about 4,000 Americans to assess their trust in US federal government agencies by looking at two elements—perceived competence and intent (see sidebar for details of our methodology).
Among those people surveyed, the US federal government was found to have the lowest trust among any entity in any sector—including state and local governments and commercial entities.3 This statistic can be problematic at any time, let alone during a time of public health crises. When the federal government embarks on significant government-sponsored activities such as national vaccination drives, stimulus programmes and digital transformations of unprecedented scale, it relies on public support (trust in government) to act as a multiplier, generating additional engagement in government programmes and incentivising collaboration by private companies.
President Biden recently incorporated trust into his FY22 budget plan, indicating rebuilding trust to be one of the administration’s top priorities. The budget includes citizen trust-building initiatives such as increasing transparency, improving programme integrity of government funds and approaching government programme design and delivery with an equity lens. Also, the post–COVID-19 work policy announced by the federal government includes plans to improve trust indirectly by improving federal employees’ work conditions. The work policy aims to implement remote work, flexible work schedules and manager training on equitable performance management for hybrid teams in an effort to provide better working conditions to federal employees.4
Much of the literature on building trust in government focusses on improving the citizen experience by examining transparency initiatives, citizen engagement and data privacy practices. But little attention has been paid to the role public sector employees might play in improving public trust.
This article explores how improving trust among government employees' attitudes toward engagement with their work (from this point on referred to as “engagement”) might indirectly increase public trust in government.
Our preliminary analysis suggests a positive relationship between employee engagement and public trust. We do not claim that this is a definitive study on the topic, but that the initial results warrant further investigation. Studying this area further could influence government strategies to improve employee engagement and, subsequently, public trust.
Our analysis relies on two data sets: the Deloitte TrustID survey (public trust data) and Best Places to Work (federal employee engagement data).5 The Deloitte TrustID survey of federal agencies was conducted between October and November 2020. It provides a composite score for 39 federal agencies and departments based on four trust signals: humanity, transparency, capability and reliability (figure 2; please see Rebuilding trust in government for details on Deloitte’s TrustID framework).
We pulled employee engagement scores for the same federal agencies from Best Places to Work, which uses the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) data.6 This annual survey measures employees’ perception of the extent to which characteristics of a successful organization their agency possesses. Best Places to Work then uses a proprietary weighted formula to assign overall employee engagement scores to each agency and scores on 14 different categories (figure 3).7
To test our hypothesis—employee engagement drives job performance, which in turn drives customer satisfaction, and subsequently, public trust—we paired public trust 2020 data with lagged employee engagement 2019 data.8
The intersection of our TrustID Survey and Best Places to Work gave us a set of 28 agencies. We used Ordinary Least Squares regression (OLS) models to study the relationship between trust and employee engagement. These models use different trust variables and employee engagement categories to study which parameters influence trust most.
Our analysis found that an increase in employee engagement scores led to an increase in public trust.
One way to understand this relationship is by inverting the lens. Disengagement among employees often impacts job performance, which can lead to poor customer experiences, ultimately challenging public trust in government agencies. Importantly, it is not just frontline customer service workers that matter. Even employee engagement among back-office staff who don’t directly interact with citizens can impact trust. It is not just the smile at the counter that can impact trust, but the quality and humanity of government’s work. Regardless of how citizens interact with government, whether in person, online, on the phone, or so on, increasing employee engagement can improve the customer experience, thereby likely increasing public trust. That is the lesson of the Indiana BMV example.
The relationship between employee engagement and trust has important implications for governments. Agencies struggling with low public trust can invest in human capital management practices to increase employee morale and thus create conditions for improving public trust through better employee interactions with constituents.
While all of us have different expectations from our workplace, in general, we would like to be involved in activities that are important to our organisation. We want to feel that we are part of something important and that our skills support the organisation’s mission. Our analysis suggests that this is the most important employee engagement parameter impacting public trust.
This parameter is measured in our data through the category "employee skills–mission match,” which is defined as:
“The extent to which employees feel that their skills and talents are used effectively. Furthermore, it assesses the level to which employees get satisfaction from their work and understand how their jobs are relevant to the organisational mission.”9
This category is built using five questions from the US Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which measures whether a job matches an employee’s talent and skill, how important it is to the agency’s mission or goals, whether it fosters a feeling of personal accomplishment, and whether the employee views the job as important.
Of the 14 categories, we found employee skills–mission match to have the strongest effect on public trust. In other words, employees who like their work, feel that their talent is being used well, and consider their work to be important, tend to put agencies in a better position to build public trust.10
Figure 4 shows a scatter plot of agency scores on employee skills–mission match and trust. The colours of the dots represent the agencies’ mission area according to Deloitte’s retail-to-regulator (R2R) framework, which categorises government mission areas into six broad archetypes (figure 5).11 (Read more about Deloitte’s R2R framework.)
We found that enforcer agencies generally lie on the lower end of the plot, indicating low employee engagement and low public trust. At the other end, we found that one of the retailer agencies in our sample enjoys both high employee engagement and high trust.
It can be easier for retail agencies to match employee skills with their agency’s missions. This is because retail agencies, generally, have a clear and straightforward mission: to provide services to a defined set of customers.
However, the same cannot be said about enforcer agencies like local and federal law enforcement agencies. In most of these agencies, employees face competing priorities like national security, protecting people, but also showing empathy and focussing on constituent experience. Such duelling priorities can dilute their mission and create a skills mismatch for their employees. When employees who are primarily trained in security and enforcement are asked to fill a customer services role, such as processing refugees seeking asylum or dealing with incoming travellers at airports, the discrepancy in what they are trained for and what they are asked to do can lead to low employee engagement.
Additionally, we found that employee skills–mission match is the most important engagement parameter, impacting all four trust signals—humanity, transparency, capability and reliability. Its relationship with each of the other signals is statistically significant.
Our research indicates that government agencies should take clear steps to align employee goals with team goals—and with agency goals—to ensure employees understand their roles and feel aligned with the agency’s mission. That means not only training employees in the right skills for their tasks, but also showing employees how their tasks help accomplish the larger mission. Our analysis suggests this one change can have a large impact on improving public trust levels.
A good employer can make employees feel part of something important and keep them happy. Research shows that organisational culture has a strong influence on employee performance.12 Our analysis reveals that three important categories that touch on an organisation’s culture—teamwork, support for diversity and strategic management—can influence public trust through its impact on employee engagement.
An emphasis on teamwork can promote better communication and cooperation between employees. Similarly, an organisation that supports diversity can help employees feel valued, respected and welcomed. Meanwhile, strategic management practices should ensure employees have the right skills to do their jobs competently and confidently. These are all important parameters that again connect to delivering the mission. For instance, organisations that promote teamwork and support diversity have been shown to be more innovative, in general, than their counterparts, and could therefore deliver the mission more effectively.13
Further, we found that along with the three categories described above, “effective leadership: supervisors,” “effective leadership: fairness,” and “effective leadership: empowerment” also have a positive relationship with humanity, while “effective leadership: supervisors” and “effective leadership: fairness” have a positive impact on the capability trust signal (see figure 7 for definitions of these categories).
Sports teams are a great example of the impact of effective leadership on employee engagement. When coaches invest in their players, player performance tends to improve, resulting in more wins and happier fans.14 The United States National Collegiate Athletic Association found basketball teams that trusted their coaches won 7 per cent more games than those that did not.15 A similar dynamic seems to be at play in the workplace, where trust in leadership typically leads to better employee engagement and higher public trust.
In June 2021, Best Places to Work released employee engagement scores for federal agencies using the FEVS survey administered between September and November 2020. This data is slightly different from the previous years due to two primary reasons. First, survey questions were added, removed, or modified to understand the impact of the pandemic on employee engagement.16 Second, Best Places to Work changed its method of calculating category scores. Due to these changes, some categories such as strategic management and support for diversity, were not a part of the new data set.
We did another round of analysis to see if employee engagement during the pandemic impacted public trust. For this, we combined Best Places to Work 2020 with Deloitte Federal Trust survey data conducted in May 2021 for the same 28 agencies. We found that the overall employee engagement parameter did not have a significant impact on public trust. However, at the category level, employee skills–mission match continued to be the most important parameter impacting public trust—composite trust and the four trust signals. In addition, we found two COVID-19–related categories had a strong positive relationship with public trust:
•COVID job resources: This category measures the extent to which employees think their organisation supported their work during the pandemic by providing consistent communication, training, equipment for working remotely and IT support.
• COVID employee well-being: This category measures the extent to which employees think their organisation supported their physical and mental well-being during the pandemic by providing flexible work schedules, expanded leaves, and expanded physical and mental health resources.
The results are consistent with our hypothesis that happy, satisfied employees are more engaged and can help improve public trust by providing a better experience to constituents.
Employee engagement is ultimately about how individual people view their work. To improve engagement, and therefore trust, governments can apply a range of human-centered design tools and approaches such as segmentation, journey mapping, human-centered service design, personalisation, and co-creation to improve employee experience and engagement. These tools might not only improve employee experience, but the human-centered design approach can provide them a peek into what matters to its customers, thus possibly helping to improve customer experience and public trust. Additionally, diversity, equity and inclusion practices are associated with fostering employee engagement and building a trusting climate. Focussing on these principles can improve teaming, coaching and the relationship employees have with those they work with on a day-to-day basis.
It is no secret that improving employee engagement can lead to positive workplace outcomes. According to a Gallup analysis of 50 years of workplace data, employee engagement impacts everything from productivity to profitability.17 Additionally, higher employee engagement has been found to correlate with higher retention rates in the federal government.18
Through our analysis, we found employee engagement could impact yet another critical government objective—public trust. This relationship is worth investigating further as it can open a new and important route for governments in rebuilding public trust.
The Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) models used for this analysis are all one explanatory variable models. This means that in each OLS model, we have used public trust as the dependent variable and only one employee engagement category as the explanatory variable. Due to this, the R-square values in the model are relatively modest. If we were to include other explanatory variables in the model—that can impact public trust—then the overall model fit (R-square) would likely improve. However, our focus was not to explain as much of the variance in the dependent variable as possible (maximising R-square), but to establish that a relationship likely exists between trust and the explanatory variable. Therefore, we kept the OLS models as minimalist as possible.
In the figures below, we have included only those employee engagement categories that have a significant relation with composite trust as well as the four trust signals at 95 per cent or 90 per cent confidence levels.
It’s time to recognise the importance of trust in our public institutions. When trust in government declines, it becomes harder for government to execute on essential tasks. Trust helps government connect with residents and encourages voluntary compliance with rules and regulations. Trust can elevate government, improving performance and connecting with the common good. Now more than ever, governments should be thinking about trust as an essential component of performance. Deloitte can help public officials measure, enhance and amplify trust in government agencies.