DOE lab gets results with Web-based survey

Employee surveys can help agencies find ways to improve efficiency and boost morale. The problem is getting people to respond to the questionnaires. At the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, officials decided a year ago to offer their tech-savvy workforce a Web-based survey, and the approach seems to have paid off.

NREL's first online survey, conducted last year, had a response rate of 54 percent, well above the expected rate of 33 percent and easily outpacing paper-based surveys conducted in previous years, said Bryan Mohler, director of quality and assessment at NREL. This year's survey was even more popular. Completed in mid-July, it had a response rate of 62 percent, with 561 employees taking part compared with 488 last year.

NREL's mission is to spur the research and development of renewable energy technologies, and that equates to an agency workforce that prefers automated processes, he said.

"The R&D business is computationally intense," Mohler said. "Everyone has a machine on their desk. The preference is for electronic communication and delivery, and that's natural for an environment like this. Paper or phone-punch surveys are not going to be as effective.

NREL used Raosoft Inc.'s InterForm 2001, a Web-based database engine for automating data gathering and presentation, to conduct the online survey. The survey had about 70 questions, with an average response time of 25 minutes. Staff members at NREL's headquarters in Golden, Colo., as well as in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, were able to access the survey on any computer platform, Mohler said.

The company tried to make the survey graphically appealing to encourage participation.

"The NREL survey is the prettiest ever done," said Catherine Rao, chief executive officer of Raosoft. "It included graphics of the people and the facility...and it's the first time we're aware of an organizational climate survey being done two years in a row to show the impact over time of using the Web."

This year's survey also included Web.Report, a point-and-click feature that enables a particular department to produce instant reports so managers can see how the responses of their employees compare with the agency as a whole, Rao said.

"Now the tough part is what's the best way to look at problems," Mohler said. "As we get better this year, I'm already making notes about better ways to cut data in the future" and will ask Raosoft for help. "We'd like less statistical analysis on the back end and more on the front end."

NREL officials took action on a number of measures as a result of the 2000 survey, Mohler said. For example, employees expressed an overwhelming preference for electronic communication via e-mail and the Internet. As a result, "we strengthened those protocols and policies...[and] made it standard for mass communications," Mohler said. "The employees saw that management did something with the data, and that shows management's confidence in the tool and in the data."

The NREL surveys and the changes that result from them are a good illustration of the "idea management" concept that is gaining popularity in the private sector, said French Caldwell, a research director at Gartner Inc. "A lot of private-sector companies want to get the ideas of their employees. And then by adding accountability, it's not just a suggestion box where you drop it in and don't know whatever happens to it," Caldwell said.

Managerial accountability helps drive employee participation in surveys, Caldwell said, and can help NREL avoid losing "valuable intellectual growth by neglect."

Confidentiality also helped increase participation, Mohler said.

The surveys are held on a Raosoft server in Seattle, not at NREL, and if there were fewer than 10 responses to a question, the lab doesn't use it for fear of breaching individual confidentiality. NREL personnel have access to a menu to generate reports, but they can't manipulate the data in any way, Mohler said.

The project costs NREL about $45,000 per year and is more cost-effective than a paper-based survey, which would require paying for data entry and subsequent analysis, he said.

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