Politics & Government

‘How do I become a better executive?’ Inslee gets wonky during meeting with state workers

Inslee on balancing demands of governing state with run for president

Washington state governor Jay Inslee talks to the editorial board of The News Tribune in Tacoma, December 14, 2018. The question of his potential run for president and how it will affect his work as governor came up.
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Washington state governor Jay Inslee talks to the editorial board of The News Tribune in Tacoma, December 14, 2018. The question of his potential run for president and how it will affect his work as governor came up.

Gov. Jay Inslee channeled his inner policy wonk Wednesday as he met with state employees in Olympia to discuss ways to improve public services.

The event was hosted by Results Washington, a part of the Governor’s Office that Inslee created through an executive order in 2013 to develop and monitor five goals. The topic of Wednesday’s meeting was “effective, efficient and accountable government.”

About 70 state employees stood up from their chairs as Inslee, the second-term governor who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, entered the meeting room in the Helen Sommers Building. The meeting occurred a day after Inslee endorsed a congressional candidate in Illinois who supports abortion rights and two days before he’s set to return to the presidential campaign trail in California.

Soon, the air was filled with discussions about what is a “human-centered workforce” or a “psychologically safe workplace,” and how to encourage “interpersonal risk-taking.” A slide showed what an “engaged” state worker would look like if he or she were a slice of cake. Answer: It’s a neatly-baked slice with lots of frills.

On the tables in front of the state employees were little red books, written by a University of Southern California professor and titled, “Just Plain Good Management.” The last page of advice begins: “Remember the first lesson of management: listen, listen, listen.”

It’s something Sara McCaslin Stogner already has embraced.

Six months after joining the state Department of Social and Health Services, Stogner and her colleagues are carrying out a directive from Secretary Cheryl Strange to do a staff idea tour. Since January, they have visited about 50 field offices, with plans to go to the other 100 sites. Employees so far have shared over 5,000 ideas in response to the question: “How can DSHS become a better employer of choice?”

At Western State Hospital in Lakewood, employees offered 400 ideas, said Stogner, who is a senior content, research and implementation strategist.

“Safety is a big concern for the staff there. One staff (member) proposed an idea to hire full-time psychology staff to take care of our staff and to provide drop-in counseling after an injury happens on the ward. That gives you a little flavor on the ideas that we’re hearing,” she said.

Related: Search Salaries of Washington state employees for 2016-17

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In an interview after the meeting, Stogner said DSHS is preparing a list of proposals from the hospital employees for the leaders of Western State to consider.

The News Tribune reported in March that a Western State nurse whose ear was partially bitten off by a patient and two co-workers sued the state, saying they were attacked by the same patient. The workers said the attacks occurred during a six-month period last year.

DSHS did not answer a question Wednesday about the issue that Stogner referenced — the number of Western State employees injured by patients in recent years.

State employees spent a big chunk of the Results Washington event reviewing the results of a survey that tracks how staff members perceive their jobs.

Last year, 44,055 state workers — 69 percent of the total — filled out the survey. Eighty percent or more gave positive ratings to questions about being treated with dignity and respect by their supervisors, knowing what is expected of them and understanding how their work contributes to the goals of the agency.

Despite overall job satisfaction, there are areas in need of improvement, said Josh Calvert, a policy and performance analyst with State Human Resources.

The survey found that 81 percent of employees felt their work contributes to their agency’s goals, but only 55 percent knew how their bosses measure success, he said.

Inslee had a few opportunities to ask questions.

He asked if there were ways for unions that represent state employees to offer suggestions on how to improve workplace conditions.

Robin Vazquez, a section chief for State Human Resources, said one way is when the state updates its collective bargaining agreements. A provision in several contracts enables employees or their union representatives to raise concerns about workplace culture or behavior that they don’t deem respectful or professional, she said.

Inslee also asked what techniques work best to help managers of state agencies improve their performance.

As the State Human Resources employees pondered the query, Inslee jumped in to explain why he asked.

“I have a friend who is not a perfect executive of a large organization. I’m trying to disguise my request for advice here,” the governor added, laughing. “How do I become a better executive? I’m serious. I’m just thinking of my own life. I’m walking around worrying about the budget and worried about all this and that. How do you embed this in a manager that this is a high level of responsibility?”

Calvert, the human resources policy and performance analyst with State Human Resources, said the key is talking with employees, being authentic, building trust with them and finding out how much empowerment they need and in which areas they want to improve their work.

“I know it’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it,” he said.

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