The Partnership for Public Service has released a new Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report that breaks out law enforcement agencies for special scrutiny.
The survey and analysis reveals a wide range of satisfaction and commitment levels across the various federal law enforcement organizations. Satisfaction and commitment scores of these agencies—based on data drawn from the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey—varied from a high of 69.9 out of 100 at the Department of Justice’s FBI all the way down to a low of 33.4 at the Department of Homeland Security’s Secret Service.
The report was produced by PPS and Deloitte Consulting.
The wide range in scores among the federal law enforcement agencies may seem striking, but it’s nonetheless similar to variance among all federal government agencies, as the report pointed out.
“[T]here do not appear to be distinct differences among these [law enforcement] organizations compared to other agencies across the federal government, regarding how employees view their jobs and workplaces,” the report states. “The law enforcement agencies do not have particularly low or high scores, and they do not score very well or very poorly in any particular workplace category.”
However, the environment at law enforcement agencies does present unique pressures, which the report’s authors note must be factored in when trying to improve these workplaces.
“Law enforcement officers are always on call and their hours are often long and can be erratic,” the report states. “They encounter suspicious, dangerous and stressful situations that can easily pose a challenge to their health, wellness and the stability of their family life.”
Taking these pressures into consideration, the authors strive to answer why some agencies do better by their people—and others do worse.
“From my read, in general, it’s the bottom-up approach [that works best], not a top-down one,” said David Dye, director of Federal Human Capital Services at Deloitte, which co-authored the report. “Engagement, as we have learned, is actually a very emotional connection between people who work together.”
Yet, as Dye also points out, ironically the freedom and encouragement for greater collaboration from the “bottom up” must come from the top. Or as Dye puts it: “You have to get the people who lead teams—and the people that they lead—to start talking and working more closely together, and that’s where the better things happen.”
Report: Three areas in play
The report is broken into three sections that represent some of the unique issues in play with respect to job satisfaction at law enforcement agencies: “Wellness in a demanding environment,” “Opening up communication in a ‘need-to-know’ atmosphere,” and finally, “Importance of employee satisfaction and commitment to accomplish the mission.”
In each section, the authors note that how an agency reacts to the human challenges in law enforcement helps determine the level of employee satisfaction. In the first chapter, for example, the report notes that the FBI scores highest in part because agency leaders are addressing the psychological dimension assiduously, and “have committed to making sure there are a range of resources available to employees, including help from psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and even a chaplain.” Agencies scoring at the lower end—such as DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (score 49.1) and the Transportation Security Administration (score 50.3) don’t (and possibly can’t) do so, and are “struggling with work-life balance” issues more generally.
The second section addresses the necessary secrecy at all law enforcement agencies, and how it can act to weaken workplace cohesion. On this issue, the authors note that, again, the FBI scores well, and actually has strengthened morale by increasing communication wherever possible to counter such inevitable law enforcement-specific problems. FBI Director James Comey, for example, has made in-person site visits to all 56 field offices, discussing precisely these issues.
In the third section, Michael Gelles, an expert on national security quoted in the report, notes that in law enforcement there is often a disconnect among leaders, who might not recognize the intimate connection between employee engagement and accomplishing an agency’s mission.
Discussions key to findings
David Dye told FEND that much of the usefulness of the report comes from the combination of the data and its analysis—but also from countless discussions at agencies, provoked and sometimes even guided by the report’s researchers.
“Part of the use of our breakout is not just about looking at the data, but that we have real conversations with people at these agencies,” Dye explained. “We ask and discuss what is unique about the work at each agency—and, as the report has laid out, three issues [emerged] in law enforcement: the importance of wellness / stress-free environments, good communication, as well as employee satisfaction.”
“But in law enforcement there are some unique factors in play,” Dye continued. “It’s wellness, yes, but in this really demanding and stressful environment, the communication part isn’t always as possible, because of need-to-know situations and the insider threat problem.”
“So in doing this report, we tried to think about both universal issues [among all agencies], and what’s unique about this type of environment, so we can give law enforcement agencies new ideas to try,” Dye said.”[For example,] we were trying to get the Secret Service to talk to FBI, and hoping it all wasn’t going to stop in this room, the discussion.”
‘Leadership at all levels’
“When you roll up everything in our report, and see that the FBI and DEA, for instance, are doing better than others, I think that there are few reasons,” Dye told FEND. “There, top leadership is on these issues, and is focused and proactive on them—and, then that percolates, and people [at all levels] start to take notice.”
“So even though there are pockets of both good and bad things at the FBI, top leadership has had a key role in setting a vision, and understanding the future, and what part people play in that,” Dye said. “But also in this, middle managers play a role in identifying the roles people play in improving things, and then also first-line supervisors play a tremendous role in helping people understand where to focus their attention.”
“So, it’s not top leadership alone but leadership at all levels that plays a role in making things work better in the law enforcement agencies,” Dye said. “We’re [even] looking at individual employees, at their self-engagement, and their responsibility in [their own employee satisfaction] and what makes that work.”
“I am going to say the FBI is doing things a bit better on all of it than most agencies,” Dye concluded.
Asked why DHS has lagged so far behind other agencies, both in this specific law enforcement agency report and in others, Dye offered an explanation.
“I don’t want to oversimplify this, but DHS is made up of 240,000 employees,” he said. “So you do find organizations—like the Coast Guard—that are really big pockets of success in this agency.”
“Size matters, here,” he said, emphasizing that though the bulk of the organization suffered from lower employee satisfaction, some units did not. “Most people probably identify with their agency more so than their [parent] department, so satisfaction is mostly a local phenomenon—it’s about hearts and minds.”
“So, if you can find—as we have tried to find—where that is working, and how, at a very local level, and you can scale it up and replicate that satisfaction, that’s how DHS can benefit,” Dye said. “And so I just don’t think that’s going to be solved from the top down, but rather from the bottom up. It won’t happen from a new onboarding or DHS HR initiative, I think.”
No single solution
“I would caution people, at agencies, about all three areas explored in our report: There is no one size fits all,” Dye said. “This kind of discussion has got to be a daily activity. The answers at the FBI are not necessarily the answer at DHS.”
“In our work, we have something like five to 70 people in a room,” Dye said, referring to one of the methods used by the report’s authors. “We find great things bubble up from below to the top. And with data to support [good changes], between the stories and the data, people [at other agencies and workplaces] can hope that if you do this set of things well, it might result in better mission outcomes.”
“People should take our report, read it and start having their own conversations,” he concluded.