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Morale dips, but feds remain committed, survey shows

The widest-reaching annual survey of federal employees shows a slight dip in morale, but a continuing commitment by feds to their jobs.

The widest-reaching annual survey of federal employees shows a dip in morale—although one that is a little less marked than in 2011—and a continuing commitment by feds to their jobs

The 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey was released in November by the Office of Personnel Management. The survey consulted more than 687,000 federal employees, covering more employees and more topics than any other FEVS the agency has conducted since the survey debuted in 2002, OPM said.

In one of the most general survey categories, 66 percent of feds report positive overall “job satisfaction”—down slightly from 68 percent the year before. Nonetheless, the survey continues to report the vast majority of feds—80 percent this year—“like the work they do, understand how their work relates to the agency's goals and priorities, and rate the overall quality of the work done by their unit as high,” according to OPM.

"These results show that federal employees continue to be as dedicated to their agencies, their mission, and public service as ever before," said OPM Director John Berry.

Those positive findings persist, OPM noted, “notwithstanding a very slight decline in morale from the highs of recent years.”

Satisfaction drop analyzed

Part of that decline was evidenced in the survey’s measure of government-wide “global satisfaction,” which combines four other measures: employees’ willingness to recommend their organization as a good place to work, and their satisfaction with their job, their pay and their organization. Overall, the measure of global satisfaction declined 3 percent in the 2012 survey, after posting gains between 2008 and 2011.

All of the measures that make up the global satisfaction measure declined as well. Employees’ willingness to recommend their organization as a good place to work dropped by 2 percent, with 67 percent of employees reporting positive responses. Employees’ satisfaction with their job and organization fell 3 percent each, to 68 percent and 59 percent positive, respectively. And only 59 percent of employees expressed satisfaction with pay, a 4 percent drop from the prior year, and the lowest level since the 2004 survey.

While OPM downplayed those results, one federal employee union characterized them as an indication of a “disturbing trend.”

“Federal employees are as committed as ever to their jobs and the missions of their agencies, but recent attacks on pay, retirement and an uncertain political climate have led to declines in morale, a hazardous trend for our nation,” stated a reaction to the survey issued by the National Treasury Employees Union.

The group’s leader homed in on pay in particular.

“The 27-month pay freeze must end,” NTEU President Colleen Kelley said in a statement. “Federal employees have contributed $103 billion over a 10-year period to solving our country’s economic troubles through the pay freeze and increased retirement contributions for new hires. Clearly, federal workers have done more than any other group in the name of deficit reduction.”

Top Performing Agencies

(By HCAAF* Index, 2012) 2012 Index Score
   
Leadership & Knowledge Management
Government-wide

60

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

71

NASA

73

Federal Trade Commission

72

National Credit Union Administration

67

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

67

  
Results-Oriented Performance Culture
Government-wide

52

Federal Trade Commission

66

NASA

65

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

64

National Credit Union Administration

62

Commerce Department

61

  
Talent Management
Government-wide

59

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

72

NASA

71

Federal Trade Commission

70

National Credit Union Administration

68

Office of Management and Budget

65

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

65

Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency

65

  
Job Satisfaction
Government-wide

66

NASA

74

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

73

Office of Management and Budget

72

National Credit Union Administration

72

State Department

71

Source: OPM, FEVS 2012.   *Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework


Group sees silver lining

“Looking at the top line of the report … there has been a decline in job satisfaction overall, and some other areas, exactly as John Berry put it,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the Partnership for Public Service, which advocates for public service.

“These declines derive from today’s higher stresses on public servants, tight budgets, the two-year pay freeze—and counting, really—and that by the time this survey was done we were in the election cycle and a lot of fed-bashing was going on,” Palguta told FEND. “But it’s not just the pay freeze, you know. The workload has been increasing at a lot of agencies while the resources have not been doing so. That adds up to a lot more work pressure. All of this is being reflected here.”

Palguta noted that the survey has been released for more than 10 years, and results generally have improved over time. Furthermore, Palguta said, this year’s decline in satisfaction was small—and there were many points in the report that reveal places to leverage for positive change.

“OPM does this survey not just to make sure employees are happy—that’s just a side benefit if they are, in a way,” he told FEND. “The real aim here is to have engaged employees—because engaged employees mean you have a more effective government.”

“And once you go beneath the top line, you see a number of very important differences among agencies,” Palguta said. “Even as we see some agencies go down, others are managing to go up. Look at the Department of Transportation for instance, a big agency which includes the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration—they managed to go up a bit in satisfaction despite being like everyone else and getting the budget squeeze.”

“Part of the reason for that is that Secretary Ray LaHood was able to make employee engagement a high priority, and requiring senior executives to report back exactly what they are doing to engage employees,” he continued. “We saw the same thing at the Office of Management and Budget—some improvement. Part of the takeaway here is some external factors have [put downward pressure] on their improvement—but there are things that improve.

“This is the good news: Despite the budgetary pressures and election cycle pressures, there are some things that managers can do to improve satisfaction in the workplace,” Palguta told FEND. “I suspect we’re going to see more improvement [as these methods spread].”

Another cause for optimism comes in the form of a second term for President Obama, Palguta said.

“Despite everything, employees know he has proposed this small increase in pay,” Palguta said, noting that this was not something Obama’s opponent was likely to do.

“They know what they’ve got here.” he said. “Feds would like the administration to do more for them—but at the same time, they believe that this administration cares about them, and cares about making government work. And I think a lot of job satisfaction is tied up in whether or not employees believe they can accomplish the mission. And you can see in the results that employees still believe in their job mission.”

“It hurts them that they don’t have the personal and workplace resources, separate things that interact. They still have to pay bills, and still have to put kids through school—and here they look at their own bottom line,” Palguta continued. “Last year, federal employees still saw that [most Americans] were in financial trouble, so they put things in perspective. But since then, we’re seeing a slight recovery in the private sector as, for instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has documented. So the sacrifices they’ve made become more prominent in their mind. And the workload appears to be increasing, in many cases.” 

Palguta suggested that despite the heavier workload and small pay increase, the Obama administration has still got a fair bit of good will from feds. At the same time, he said, it is up to the administration to better engage workers and make sure they feel they are being treated in a fair manner to limit or stop any further erosion in federal workplace satisfaction.

Private-sector comparisons

“What’s interesting—and what bothers me—is that in the private sector, employees do give more positive responses,” Palguta told FEND. “As a former federal employee of 34 years’ experience, that’s always frustrated me. We can’t seem to do as well as the private sector on satisfaction, according to their surveys. We should be able to beat the pants off the private sector in terms of providing a meaningful work environment and engaging employees. It’s public service. But somehow we still don’t, except at some agencies.”

“We know it can be done,” he said. “There is room for improvement. It’s about having the right leadership and enough resources—and a number of other factors.”

Second term

Palguta notes that the president’s second term presents the opportunity to increase the number of agencies that are doing well. As an example of how much change leadership can make, Palguta notes that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., over the course of 2007 to 2011, was able to turn its status around—from 25th place to first place in the survey.

“Employees credit [former] Chairperson Sheila Bair,” he said. “It’s leadership.”

“We know there is a really good chance [to improve FEVS scores] and I’d wager that in the 2013 survey we will see some improvement,” Palguta told FEND.

“The conditions are here for an upward trend the rest of the administration,” he said. “It is not all money—money is not inconsequential, but a far greater driver is leadership. I really believe it’s clear that it’s Ray LaHood’s leadership that has helped to raise satisfaction at Transportation. And it’s David Kappos at the Patent and Trademark Office who so personally engaged and gave the spark there.

“Leadership is proven to be, by far, the greatest factor in the satisfaction experienced by employees,” Palguta said.

PPS will release its own, more detailed report, “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” in mid-December. The report incorporates data collected in OPM’s FEVS report.

See the report at:  www.fedview.opm.gov/2012files/2012_Government_Management_Report.PDF.

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