The Pandemic in the Public Sector

Every business has suffered from Covid-19. Organisations large and small have struggled with increased absenteeism, decreased productivity and disruption to customer services. Survey results show another pandemic rife in the Queensland Public Sector, and this one will take even longer than Covid to eradicate. It is the scourge of apathy.

You may think that the term pandemic is a convenient use of clickbait. You may even think that I am being intentionally sensationalist or alarmist. But let’s first look at the definition of a pandemic. It is an:

infectious disease that has spread across a large region, for instance, multiple continents or worldwide, affecting a substantial number of individuals.

So, while I am not referring to something affecting multiple continents, apathy in the Queensland Public Sector does fit the other elements of the definition in that it is:

  • A disease
  • Infectious
  • Affects a substantial number of people.

Apathy Is A Disease

Apathy is a disease whose symptoms are a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. Apathy in the workplace is also known as lack of motivation or disengagement. It is not the natural human state which seeks happiness through contribution. Apathy can be viewed as a more dire situation than employee dissatisfaction. With dissatisfaction, employees are still likely to feel compelled to address their unsuitable situation, or at least to whinge and whine about it. They at least feel something. When they are dissatisfied, there is still some concern with their situation, and still, some spark left to fix it. However, with apathy, employees no longer care about seeking improvement. They have become cynical, dispirited and lethargic. In this way, apathy has adverse effects on the individual, through decreased physical and mental wellbeing, and on the organisation, through reduced performance and missed opportunities for excellence and transformation.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Apathy Is Infectious

The best way of understanding the infectious nature of apathy is by referring to the Burke and Litwin model of Organisational Performance. This model shows that individual motivation is a direct downstream contributor to individual and organisational performance. However, it also influences upwards, impacting upon work unit climate. The whole team suffers from indifference. It only takes one indifferent individual to bring down the mood of the unit. If left to run untreated, it becomes ingrained in the organisational psyche and embedded in the systems and structures. Soon, when a significant mass of people no longer cares, the leaders are challenged less to make things better. It does not mean that there is nothing wrong in the organisation; it just means that people don’t have any energy to fight for change. They have given up on their leaders and themselves.

Apathy Is Widespread

The latest published results of the Working for Queensland Survey suggest that apathy affects most public servants. So, while it may not be covering continents, it certainly spans the plethora of government agencies. The combination of the following statistics provides evidence of this:

  1. The response rate for the survey
  2. The proportion of neutral responses

1. The Survey Response Rate

The proportion of employees who responded to the Working For Queensland survey is shown in the following graph.

There was a wide range of participation rates, with the lowest being 33% and the highest being 84%. The average response rate across all agencies was 59%. So out of every ten employees in the public sector, six completed the survey.

Is this a good result? What is considered a good response rate for a web-based employee survey? Dr Shoobridge suggests the following[i]:

“In general, if you get more than 70% you can consider that your response rate is very good. Anything between 60% and 70% is good. Scores between 50% and 60% are acceptable and are considered industry standard for web-based surveys. Anything below 50% is poor.”

Applying these definitions to the public sector results, we get the following breakdown.

Those agencies achieving good and very good response rates are to be congratulated. However, it is evident that across the sector, they are being weighed down by those agencies, only achieving acceptable or poor results. As Dr Shoobridge states:

“It is definitely a bad sign when your employees are not even ‘bothered’ answering your survey.”

There were no agencies in 2019 which met the ‘alarm bell’ ringing threshold of response rates below 30%. However, one came very close at 33%. It would be interesting to see how engagement at this agency has changed when the most recent results are released.

Overall though, in 2019, four out of ten public sector employees on average could not be bothered completing the survey.

However, this picture needs to be adjusted for the proportion of neutral responses.

Neutral Responses

In most survey questions, respondents were presented with a traditional 5-point Likert scale. Their choice of responses was:

  • Strongly disagree
  • Disagree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Agree
  • Strongly Agree

There is always controversy about whether the middle option, known as a neutral response, should be included. There are situations where it would be applicable. For example, an employee may never have encountered a situation of diversity in sexual orientation and therefore may not be able to validly comment on how this diversity is treated in the workplace. 

However, for more common situations, you would think that people would have a view and so should only rarely choose the neutral option. This would especially be the case for questions related to the fairness of promotions and rewards, their level of work overload and the extent to which their managers bring out the best in them.

In the 2019 survey results, we see the following frequency of use of the middle option per question.

The neutral response was chosen by between 6% and 37% of respondents depending on the question. The average question had 22% of people unable or unwilling to agree or disagree with the statement. This shows that one in five respondents either:

  • Genuinely had no opinion on the issue (considered unlikely given the general nature of the topics covered)
  • Took the easy option just to complete the questionnaire
  • Are in a personal conflict between the positive and negative aspects they see related to the issue
  • Are worried about expressing an opinion lest they are identified.

Let’s Do The Math

The analysis began with the average of six out of ten employees completing the survey. However, on any given question, approximately two out of ten did not express a clear opinion about their questions. On average, it could be said that for an issue being addressed, only four out of ten public servants were engaged with the topic in question.

Remember the scoring used above for participation rate. 

Anything below 50% of engagement is poor

At 40% engagement with questions, this suggests that most (six out of ten) public servants are displaying apathy.

The Cause Of The Disease

The low participation rate and high use of the neutral score point to one underlying cause – the lack of faith in and engagement with the organisations’ leaders. 

The fact that, on average, only 60% completed the survey at all shows that the remaining 40% were not compelled to do so. It suggests that this latter proportion of people do not trust their leaders to take action on the issues that may be raised. For these people, it was likely that the survey was seen as a useless feedback tool, not worth their time and effort.

Concerning the neutral response, Shawn Fogle, who has extensive experience with employee surveys, views its use as an indicator of how engaging and influential the leaders of the organisation are[ii]. The times that he used neutral responses were when “the leader’s leadership influence was low or completely non-existent”. If there was bad leadership[iii], it would invoke feelings of anger and dissatisfaction. People would feel compelled to complete the questionnaire and note their dissatisfaction. If there were great leaders, you would also see high levels of clear responses supporting the positive culture. However, when the leader was divorced from their people, there was no impetus to participate in any feedback exercise. Employees are not stimulated either way by their leaders. They are left feeling sad, stale and stuck.

In this way, poor leadership is the fundamental cause of both elements of apathy we see played out in these survey responses.

Perhaps, as outlined in the article on the previous article regarding public sector leadership, we are seeing the very real effects of poor-quality leadership at play.

The Consequences

We have already discussed the infectious nature of apathy and how it permeates through all levels of the organisation, impacting productivity and performance. All employees, though, from top to bottom, suffer the greatest of consequences – unfulfilled potential. When your employees don’t care anymore, they will not invest energy in Innovative Work Behaviours (IWB). They won’t bother to find ways to deal with difficult problems and be the best they can be. They don’t seek out challenges to learn and grow and remain stagnant and stuck.

Apathy also results in very few challenges to the leadership, resulting in the same problem of wasted potential. The leaders never get to hear the real issues the organisation faces or are given a chance to fix them. They continue on the treadmill of mediocrity, believing themselves to be travelling on the road to success.

Where apathy reigns, everyone loses. There is a self-sustaining cycle of incompetence that filters down to poor service to customers. Even if the delivered service appears satisfactory, we would never know how amazing it could be if the employees were engaged, enthusiastic, inspired and excited to give their best every day.

What’s Next?

Comparing these results with both past and more recent survey outcomes will be interesting. When this analysis is complete, I will post an update to show how things may be changing. In the meantime, though, I am curious to understand further why people are not completing the survey or choosing neutral responses. This may shed some further light on the issues raised and allow a true assessment of the value of this survey as a feedback tool. However, with this level of disengagement, it is doubtful whether a survey about the survey would gather any useful information at all!


[i] Ensure ‘authentic and meaningful’ employee survey participation | LinkedIn

[ii] Determining the Real Value of a “Neutral” Survey Response | LinkedIn

[iii] Is this an oxymoron? See http://3rd-edge.com/2022/03/17/public-sector-leadership-an-oxymoron/

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