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Polco News & Knowledge

How Nevada County Involves Its Employees in Organizational Innovation

Image of people talking in conference room

Surveys are the starting point for employee-led conversations on internal changes

- By Jen Aceto - 

Working in local government is not easy. Organizations are currently struggling to find the right people for important roles and overhaul dated processes that are no longer efficient in the digital age, among other challenges. In order to overcome these challenges and create a healthy, collaborative workplace, it is important to ask employees for feedback. 

“Right now it’s very difficult to be a public servant, especially at the local level,” said Heidi Hall, a Board of Supervisors member in Nevada County, California. “To show employees that you care, that you want them to be happy, that you appreciate the work they do–it’s important.” 

Listening to staff opinions is one way local governments can show that their employees matter.  To gather insights, Nevada County officials conducted The National Employee Survey® (The NES) with its over 1000 staff members. The NES is a needs assessment that helps local governments optimize their organization through understanding their employees’ experiences. 

Measuring Progress

The County first conducted The NES in 2018. Officials surveyed again in 2021 to track their progress and identify potential new problem areas. 

“We’ve been through a number of employee assessment surveys, but I’ve never seen one this comprehensive,” Hall said. “I was thrilled to hear that the County was willing to take this on.” 

After conducting the survey, Polco’s VP of Innovation, Michelle Kobayashi, presented The NES findings to County staff. 

“We started [presentations] with our leadership and we also did workshops with our entire workforce, so everyone participated and heard the results from Michelle,” said Alison Lehman, Nevada County Executive Officer.  “That was very helpful coming from a third party and not from a County person, so that employees could trust the results were accurate.” 

The second iteration of the survey helped the County see the impact of their previous interventions. “It was important for us to benchmark feedback from employees,” Lehman said. 

The 2021 results revealed that communication performance increased. 

“It’s interesting that our employees felt we improved communication during the pandemic,” said County Information Officer Steve Monaghan. “Part of it was that the pandemic forced us to do certain things, like pivot to video meetings, and we started communicating a lot more because people needed to know what was happening.”

The County also hosted weekly Lunch and Learns to give employees updates on Covid. 

Results also revealed supervisor performance improved from 2018. “Something changed in the last three years where employees felt that the County was doing a much better job,” said former Assistant CEO Mali LaGoe. “I would want to dive into that and find out why–what did we do differently?” 

Further investigation into surprising results like this will help the County build on what’s already working.

Acting on Results

LaGoe suggests that any organization considering an employee survey should be prepared to respond to the results and be willing to look hard at the problem areas.

Monaghan agreed. “If you don’t act on the results, it shows employees and residents that you’re not really listening to their feedback,” he cautioned. “There has to be a plan or initiative of how you’re going to communicate the results and then act on them.”

The team suggests being up-front with employees about how much change is possible, and picking at least one or two areas for improvement. 

Getting Employees Involved in Decisions

The 2018 NES uncovered work flexibility as an area of potential improvement. To address the concern, Nevada County officials formed work groups representing all levels of the organization to develop a new flex schedule and flexible work policy. 

“[The process] was helpful because we were able to build programs that we rolled out,” Lehman said. “That worked really well to gain trust, ownership, and strategic alignment across the organization as we implemented those changes.”

As a result, the organization formed a strong flex-schedule policy. The new policy positioned the County to easily transition to be fully remote before the pandemic. 

“They actually saw a tangible result from their participation in the first survey, so that really drove the second survey,” Lehman said.

Improving Recruitment  

The process of listening to employees and including them in decision-making has made Nevada County a more enjoyable place to work.

“It’s helpful to see the comparisons to other communities,” Hall said. “Especially as someone who’s working with other counties and agencies on a regular basis, it’s great to be able to know that employees here are satisfied and be able to talk about the County as being a great employer with happy employees.”

This has helped the County attract qualified workers, which is especially important as many organizations are struggling to recruit for needed positions.

“It’s a great recruitment tool because we know that not only are employees happy here, but our CEO and management team are responsive to feedback,” Hall said. 

Facing Challenges Head On

Improving employee engagement and satisfaction is difficult but worthwhile work for local governments, as Nevada County has shown. Beyond showing employees that management cares about their experience, these efforts also impact community quality of life as a whole. 

A commitment to happy employees is an investment in happy residents. It ensures that the spaces where residents and employees live and work are built to help them thrive–and it improves overall government performance in the process.

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