All Articles Leadership Management How Milwaukee engaged employees by asking for ideas

How Milwaukee engaged employees by asking for ideas

3 min read


This guest post is by Miri Zena McDonald, a strategic-communications consultant. McDonald tweets at @miri_orgchange. She attended the Advanced Learning Institute’s Strategic Internal Communications Conference in Chicago.

Julie Ferris, public relations supervisor for Milwaukee, shared a simple, yet effective, way the city engaged employees.

In 2009, Milwaukee projected a large budget shortfall for 2010. To solve this problem, Alderman Michael Murphy, chairman of the Common Council’s Finance & Personnel Committee, decided to go to the experts: the city’s employees.

Ferris said she and Murphy discussed the best way to get feedback. They thought about using the employee intranet, but not all employees use it. They also wanted to make sure employees felt their feedback was anonymous. They decided to keep it simple: an e-mail with a link to an online survey.

The e-mail honestly communicated the city’s budget problems and  tough decisions it would face if the issue could not be resolved: raise taxes or cut programs. Murphy also emphasized that city employees were Milwaukee’s best source for ideas given their intimate knowledge of processes and programs.

The e-mail asked employees to fill out a brief survey to submit ideas and feedback to help solve this problem. The response was overwhelming, and some excellent ideas were submitted.

The most common thing city employees said: “Thank you for asking for my ideas. Here’s the list I’ve been compiling.” Even employees who didn’t have specific ideas thanked Murphy for asking for employee input.

Ferris shared a unique piece of the survey. Employees had to answer two yes-or-no questions before submitting their ideas. There was no scale, no comment section — only yes or no.

The first question asked whether the employee would agree with raising taxes to help meet budget needs. The second asked whether the employee would want to cut city services to meet budget needs.

Ferris said they purposely posed the questions in this manner to underscore a city’s unpopular but necessary decisions when facing a budgetary shortfall.

One idea submitted was worth thousands of dollars. It was simple: Reduce newspaper subscriptions for city officials and other staff members who work in the same office. Half of these individuals didn’t read their copy every day, and many could easily share.

In all, 12 budget amendments came out of employees’ ideas that had a direct cost impact.

The simple act of asking for feedback from people who know the work the best yielded more fruitful ideas than Murphy and other officials could have developed, and it increased engagement in the process.