Improve Employee Engagement in Your Municipality:

Inspire them with a Compelling Vision!

improve employee engagement in your municipality

When I ask municipal employees what is it about their organization that engages them, subjects such as compensation and benefits, professional growth and development, innovation, and leadership are usually top of mind.  (Note to reader:  employees tend to answer rationally, not emotionally, so they often don’t correctly identify what really drives their engagement, and ultimately, will improve employee engagement).  Never is the subject of the municipal organization’s vision brought up.  At least, not up to now....

TalentMap has conducted employee engagement surveys in more than twenty different municipalities in the U.S. and Canada within the last couple of years, and one of the findings is that many, if not all, of these cities, towns, and counties have in common is that employee engagement is higher in those municipalities which have articulated a clear aspirational vision for the future for both their city or town as a whole, as well as the administration’s role in bringing that vision to life.  Conversely, those that have struggled to do so also see lower levels of employee engagement.

Why is organizational vision so important to municipal employees?  Many in the municipal c-suite discount the importance of organizational vision to employees.  I too often hear:  “those guys driving the trucks and cutting the grass don’t care about things like “vision”. Things like vision, strategic plans, and all that crap are for the MBAs and the planners.  Municipal workers care about their take-home, and which parking stall they get.” Well, if that sounds somewhat disparaging, you’re absolutely right.  And the execs that think this way (and I’ve encountered too many) are flat-out wrong.

improve employee engagement with vision

The best way to explain this is through a “tale of two cities” (pun intended).

City #1:  Shall remain “nameless”.

Employee engagement is at the municipal benchmark average of 67%.  Could be better, could be worse.  Like many other municipalities, how employees feel about professional growth, diversity and inclusion (Diversity? Really?  Yes, but that’s for another blog), and the culture of innovation in their city are most closely linked to their engagement.  Also, like other municipalities, how employees feel about their leadership and vision has a very significant impact on how many employees are engaged.  But unfortunately, in the case of this municipality, the results are not very favorable in this regard.  Only 41% of employees indicated they were favorable towards their city’s/administration’s vision.  Almost just as many indicated they were on the fence, or neutral, towards the vision, and more than one in five  (22%) were unfavorable.  What was going on?  Comments clearly laid the blame at the feet of their leaders and city council:

“Politics is a reality in a municipality but I feel senior leadership does not make critical decisions due to fear of political backlash...I feel there is distrust between the current Council and senior leadership and it is impacting my job.”

And therein lies the heart of the issue.  While the large majority of municipal employees can certainly do their jobs on a daily basis without needing the guiding light of an inspirational vision to “come down” from Council, what we are finding is that, eventually, this sense of lacking direction represents a significant lost opportunity to rally and inspire employees to work for something greater than themselves – and employees link that directly to their ability to engage with the organization.

It will help if we also look at a very successful example:

improve employee engagement chestermereCity #2:  Chestermere, Alberta.  Population:  ~20,000.  Employees:

~125.   Chestermere has a vision statement that states: to become Alberta's Oasis: the Recreation and Relaxation Capital. Simple, right?  Easy? No way.  But, Chestermere ranks in the top 25% of municipalities in Canada in terms of employee engagement in its size category.  One of the key drivers of engagement, and reasons why so many employees are so engaged with the organization, is that most feel they have the direction, a purpose, and they know that no matter what their job is at the City, they know how they contribute to achieving this vision.  Is Chestermere a Utopia?  Far from it.  Many employees also feel that they need more support and resources to, guess what, achieve their vision!   Comments in the survey included:  “I  think the vision is fantastic.  Management needs to ensure that employees are given enough time and resources to properly work towards those goals and vision.” Many other comments talked about how that simple vision inspires them to come to work every day and work towards that goal.  It’s all about belonging to something bigger than oneself and identifying with success.

Chestermere also realizes that Council’s Vision can change every 4 years when a new Council may be voted in so they are working on creating what they call “Guiding Principles”.  The idea is that no matter what Council’s vision is / may be, the organization remains constant in what guides them – the Amazing link to purpose.  The chart opposite shows what was presented to staff.  Staff are engaged so that they can come up with the organization’s Guiding Principles.  Each department has its own vision guided by the unique work done in each department and this does not change.  The goal is that all departments feel a common link to purpose, hence the Guiding Principles.

amazing link to purpose

So, my municipal friends, improving employee engagement is not just about benefits, career growth, training, development and a good manager.  To get to that next level, we need to inspire them with a compelling vision and direction they can rally behind.  As we compete for talent in the next few years, your municipality’s vision will become an increasingly important tool to attract, retain, and engage your employees!

Norm Baillie-David is Senior Vice President of Engagement Consulting at TalentMap, a firm which help organizations measure and improve employee engagement, and which has extensive experience working with municipalities in the United States and Canada.


Norm wishes to thank Cathleen Peter-Swart, Interim Director of Corporate Services, and the City of Chestermere for their collaboration and assistance.

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