2016 Management Excellence

Kimya Lee and the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Team

Turned a government-wide survey into an effective tool for managers to better understand employee views of the workplace, providing critical data for leaders to improve employee engagement, satisfaction and performance.

The U.S. government’s personnel office conducts a broad survey every year to assess employee views of their agency’s leadership, supervisors and work experience. Good use of the data can help agencies diagnose problem areas and take steps to increase employee engagement, satisfaction and organizational performance. 

In the five years that Kimya Lee headed the Office of Personnel Management’s Planning and Policy Analysis Survey Group, she and her team greatly expanded and improved the employee survey as well as access to its wealth of information.

“She has led an effort that has had a huge impact,” said Beth Cobert, acting director of OPM. “The creativity, the persistence and the rigor with which she did that is truly distinctive.”

Lee enhanced the survey’s parameters and developed the idea for UnlockTalent.gov, an interactive website tool that displays data visually to help agency leaders better understand and work with their results. She also led her team to increase the number of information-packed reports OPM sends to leaders and managers across government. Instead of 1,000 high-level reports for agencies and subcomponents, OPM now issues more than 26,000 reports down to the office level, with granular data leaders can use to compare their agency’s units.

Experts in both the public and private sectors say improved employee engagement and satisfaction leads to better overall organizational performance. To understand how their employees are doing, agencies need good data. (The Partnership for Public Service relies on the annual OPM survey data to produce its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings).

When OPM began the survey in 2002, the data collection gave a high-level picture of how agencies were faring according to their employees.

“It wasn’t that accessible to the average manager,” said Justin Johnson, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council. The news was ‘NASA is good and DHS is bad.’ What do I do with that?” he asked.

Lee and her team transformed the survey results into a useful and user-friendly tool, from “a curious, interesting scoreboard to something you can actually do something with,” Johnson said.

The office started producing reports with detailed, targeted data for managers at lower levels in agencies, and numerous managers have used the granular information to make changes or start programs to boost employee satisfaction.

For example, being able to analyze data at the unit level helped the Department of Housing and Urban Development pinpoint and fix a specific management issue, said Nani Coloretti, HUD’s deputy secretary. A HUD manager learned of an employee engagement problem and by using the survey data OPM provided, he figured out the issue was in one particular unit and was able to address it, Coloretti said.

The data has “become really relevant to our employee engagement planning,” Coloretti said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all way to improve your employee engagement.” 

Coloretti encourages HUD managers to use the UnlockTalent.gov tool to learn about their employees.  “Hundreds of people have signed up, which is really the benefit of Kimya’s work,” Coloretti said.

Many other agencies have used the data to address employee issues. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, faced with disappointing scores several years ago, started making changes that included increased telework opportunities and greater flexibility in alternative work schedules.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also alerted by survey numbers a few years ago, started focusing on, among other things, enhancing supervisors’ skills at all levels and recognizing staff performance, contributions and achievements.

Many agencies report starting town hall meetings to improve communication between leaders and staff and let employees raise issues of concern.

Kimya’s “signature accomplishment is expanding the reach of the survey so it’s now viewed as a management tool across the government,” said Jonathan Foley, OPM’s director of Planning and Policy Analysis.

“Our biggest asset is the people we employ,” he said. “The extent to which they’re engaged in their work and satisfied with their work environment has a direct effect on productivity in the workforce.”

Foley described Lee as having a “knack for understanding how to present data. More important is her understanding of how people would use it and what would be useful.”

“Her enthusiasm for her work is contagious,” Foley said. “She really believes in what she does and that really motivates her.”

In her current role as senior advisor on research and evaluation, Lee is now bridging the gap between research and policy-making, and using the vast array of data available at OPM to inform and enhance human capital management. She continues to work with the team she used to lead.

“I get to put a human face on the data I work with,” Lee said. “I’m able to piece together data to tell a story about our workforce and the programs we use to help the federal government serve the American people.”