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Professors William Resh and Frank Zerunyan survey Long Beach city employees

October 30, 2018
Frank Zerunyan and William Resh with city employees

Frank Zerunyan and William Resh with city employees

By Matthew Kredell

In August, the City Council for the City of Long Beach voted to request the City Manager to encourage all city employees to participate in the USC Price School of Public Policy’s State of the Service public employee survey.

USC Price Associate Professor William Resh and Professor Frank Zerunyan are in the final months of collecting data for their two-year comparative study intended to provide local cities with data as to the needs of their employee workforce, with a specific focus on citizen engagement practices within the municipalities.

“The idea is to build a catalog across municipalities throughout Los Angeles County of best practices and tactics in how employees engage citizens,” Resh said.

With funding from the Haynes Foundation, as well as support from the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, the study will help cities discover what motivates their employees to do their jobs, evaluating levels of satisfaction, and learning of the pressures, stresses and challenges they face. The final report and data promulgation will provide participating governments with actionable information on the state of their workforce.

“Local governments need data on how to improve their practices and improve the workplace experiences of public servants,” Zerunyan said. “Human capital remains the most important capital for local governments to deliver their public mission.”

Large-Scale Surveying, for Real Policy Results

While only 15 of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County have chosen to participate in the survey thus far, having Long Beach join the City of Los Angeles gives the study the two largest cities in terms of population and employment. Zerunyan now expects to surpass 10,000 survey responses before the team concludes the study at the end of this year. They are also still welcoming other cities to join in promoting the survey to their employees in these final months of the study.

Associate Professor William Resh

Associate Professor William Resh

“Los Angeles and Long Beach will use the results to make assessments within their organizations to determine what structural changes and changes to employee engagement they can make,” Resh said. “If the two biggest cities in the county use it, some real policy results could come about.”

Long Beach Councilwoman Stacy Mungo Flanigan, a 2005 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at USC Price and adjunct professor at the school, sponsored the council motion to participate in the survey. The motion indicated that the council saw the study as a way to “take proactive steps in ensuring we are creating the best possible conditions to ensure employee satisfaction and productivity.”

“The State of the Service survey is a tool that will provide data needed to ensure the lifeblood of our public service agencies: talent,” Mungo Flanigan said. “The information it will provide aligns with the Price School’s commitment to our students and the profession of public administration, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Helping Citizens vs. Red Tape

Resh already has written two journal articles, pending publication, on key findings from the results that have come in thus far.

One of Resh’s conclusions is that the satisfaction that administrators find in engaging with citizens often comes from helping them navigate various administrative procedures, while dissatisfaction often stems from the rules and red tape that hinder them from helping citizens.

“Perhaps many of our municipalities are unintentionally burdening many frontline workers from being able to deliver services based on the procedures put in place in terms of engagement,” Resh said.

Professor Frank Zerunyan

Professor Frank Zerunyan

His second article is on the underappreciated importance of emotional labor, or the ability to empathize with and control another person’s emotions to the point of eliciting information in a more efficient way, in engaging with citizens.

“Front-line workers deal with people at heightened emotional states on a consistent basis,” Resh said. “The ability not only to keep calm themselves but manage the citizen’s emotional state to the point that it leads to better outcomes for the administrator and citizen is an important skill that people are not paid for, even though it’s an important part of their position.”

Practical Applications

Resh and Zerunyan plan to present some of the data sets from the survey Nov. 15 at the City Managers’ Summit sponsored by USC Price. Sometime next year, they will produce a book summarizing the results of the study that will be disseminated to all interested parties.

“Not many large cities have done a human capital assessment survey of this kind and breadth, using validated constructs or items of social psychology to improve their organization,” Resh said. “That the two largest cities in Los Angeles County are not only willing to do it but excited about the results is an encouraging step forward.”

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