Agency of the Month: USDA goes back to basics to increase employee engagement

Chavonda Jacobs-Young has been leading the USDA's Agricultural Research Service since 2014. In this week's edition of Agency of the Month, she says it is old-school communication techniques that have led to higher engagement among her employees.


By Rahul Bali
Federal News Radio


CJacobsYoungOfficialWebPhoto26,000 scientists, 2,000 support employees, spread across 90 sites, including four overseas locations.

That is who Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young leads at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) does research in the areas of food safety, nutrition, animal production, plant production and natural resources.

Employee engagement has been a big focus for Jacobs-Young since becoming administrator of ARS in February 2014.

“One of the first steps we took as a leadership team, under my administration, was to do a lot of outreach to our employees,” Jacobs-Young told Federal News Radio's Agency of the Month radio show.

That started with nearly 100 employee listening sessions with different levels of agency leadership. Jacobs-Young said the sessions humanized agency leaders. 

“This was a great opportunity to get a lot of our leaders out on the ground with our employees.” 

Jacobs-Young said they heard from many agency employees, specifically scientists, about the administrative burden of paperwork. She said it was important to explain to employees why some paperwork was necessary and that employees appreciated getting an explanation.

Jacobs-Young’s team looked at whether certain administrative tasks were directed from the federal level, the department level or the agency level.

“If it is something we are doing to ourselves, we should feel free to step back and say, ‘Why?'”

Jacobs-Young said employees started stepping forward with questions and ideas.

“We should be asking ourselves everyday, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ And I found that people are pretty open to doing that.”

The listening sessions led ARS to launch webinars called “Inform and Engage.”

“We are trying to create an environment where people feel empowered to help guide the agency to our future.”

One popular webinar involved the federal budget process.

Jacobs-Young said engaging ARS employees on the budget is important because of the tough choices that have been made in recent years.

“I believe that having some transparency, on some level, about how the budget works, giving people a better understanding of the type of decisions we have to make, not the specifics, but how the process works, could better inform them about why we are doing some of the things we are doing.”

Jacobs-Young told Federal News Radio that a focus on internal agency communication is part of her strategy for employee engagement. Jacobs-Young, who first joined ARS in 2012 as an associate administrator, said one thing ARS did not have was an agency intranet.

It is now a place for workers to find important agency information. It includes a link to Administrator Jacobs-Young’s blog.

Jacobs-Young’s final piece of advice for federal leaders trying to increase employee engagement is follow-up communication.

“Once you accomplish something that has been requested by your employees, it’s important to go back and communicate to them that you have done it. You find that if you deliver on what they asked for, that you get people to keep talking, but if you don’t, you won’t get that continued communication and dialogue with the employees.”

Jacobs-Young added that follow-up communication is important, even when you can’t deliver on items that employees want. 

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