This particular story comes to us from the Department of Homeland Security, probably one of the most dysfunctional federal agencies (and that's truly saying something). But it will probably be familiar, in lesser form, to many people in large organizations struggling to build an effective feedback program.
You see, DHS has a problem. Its particular problem is having the lowest morale of any federal agency. So they commissioned an employee survey, which pointed to several changes management could do to improve things.
But nothing happened after that study was completed. So they paid for another survey, which pretty much said the same thing.
Still nothing happened. Nothing happened after the third study, either. Or the fourth.
Now, though, a new factor has emerged to weigh on the depressed morale of DHS workers: too many internal surveys.
The problem is that surveys are just a tool, and like many tools, they can be used for many different purposes. The same hammer which can be used to build a house can also be used to smash the windows. It all comes down to the intent of the wielder.
Surveys can be used very effectively to gain insights, identify root causes of problems, and support a program of continuous improvement. Surveys can also be used to delay and hinder change, and create the appearance of action where none exists. It all comes down to the intent of the wielder.
For a dysfunctional bureaucracy like DHS, which apparently does not have the organizational will to face its problems and make real changes, the employee survey is a very effective tool for resisting change. "We need to study the problem" is followed by "we need to finish the study before we do anything," then "we need to do another study," and finally, "whatever happened to that study?"
The lesson is that a survey, by itself, can't change anything. The organization and its leadership has to be committed to improvement before the tool can be used as it should be used.