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PPS report: Fed workplace engagement improves slightly—but cuts threaten progress, and gap with private sector remains

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows that, overall, the federal workplace in recent times has continued a multi-year trend of showing incremental improvements in employee engagement. That’s the good news.

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows that, overall, the federal workplace in recent times has continued a multi-year trend of showing incremental improvements in employee engagement. That’s the good news.

The bad news, according to survey analysts, is that the year-over-year gain remains small—and some departments and agencies actually have exhibited a slide—even before the present administration’s announced call for severe budget cuts.

Perhaps equally disheartening is that the federal workplace perennially lags far behind the average private workplace in overall employee engagement and satisfaction—despite what arguably has been considerable attention paid to this continuing problem.

A recent hearing highlighting a FEVS analysis by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and its partner Deloitte, experts emphasize that gap is stubbornly holding pretty steady.

“In 2016, the government’s score was 17.7 points behind the private sector …,” Max Stier, the CEO of PPS testified at an Apr. 6 hearing of a subcommittee of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. “[That’s a] slight decline from the prior year’s 18.6 point gap.”

Specifically, a comparable 2016 private sector survey of employees showed an average engagement score of 77.1, while the federal government returned a much lower average score—59.4. In fact, similarly wide gaps have been the norm over the years.

“Particularly troubling is the fact that only 12 of the 305 agencies in our rankings scored above the private sector average,” Stier added.

The most recent overall PPS/Deloitte FEVS analysis was released in December 2016. The groups issued a follow-up report, which grouped agencies and their rankings by the type of work each agency performs for the country. And the most recent focused discussion of the not-so-inspiring results of the analysis occurred at the hearing where Stier testified.

Survey and its discontents

Each year, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service along with Deloitte analyzes the Office of Personnel Management employee FEVS survey—resulting in the widely cited Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report.

The FEVS results from the most recent PPS/Deloitte report reflect responses gleaned from over 407,000 federal employees surveyed between April and June 2016.

As Stier testified, certain questions put to federal employees showed especially low scores and wide gaps with the private sector. Overall federal agencies specifically lag behind their private sector counterparts in the “critical areas of leadership, merit-based awards, and performance management.” For example, federal employees scored 16.7 points lower than the private sector when asked how they felt about the statement, “I have trust and confidence in my supervisor.” Worse, feds scored their engagement level at 19.7 points lower than the private sector average when asked the survey question, “How satisfied are you with your involvement with decisions that affect your work?”

Particularly disturbing, as Stier recounted for the panel, is that feds exhibit a 16.7 point lower agreement with the statement, “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.”

Another, equally problematic statistic: Although the average overall score has been improving slightly again in recent years, the top broad average occurred way back in 2010—when it was more than five points higher than today, at 65.0. And, with many in Congress and in the White House leveling heavy criticism at federal employees and calling for severe cuts to the federal budget, it will be a steep challenge to maintain the favorable trend.

However, Stier told the subcommittee that part of the solution to some specific gaps in federal employee engagement is for government leaders to learn from the private sector. He cited various reports by Ford Motor Co., Accenture and Deloitte that highlight the value of employee engagement to improving outcomes. Government can use some of the private sector’s methods to improve employee engagement, he noted.

Whatever path is taken to get there, Stier insisted that to make significant gains in engagement scores, agencies and their leaders must change to get greater buy-in from employees.

Despite problems, high “skills-mission match”

Although overall engagement scores have so far remained below their peak from 2010, Stier and PPS’s reports offer some continuing good news, year after year.

“Despite low scores on questions related to leadership, federal employees remain highly committed to the work and missions of their organizations,” Stier said. “Nearly 90 percent of employees believe the work they do is important, while 71 percent say their work gives them a feeling of personal accomplishment.”

According to report data, Stier told the panel that 95 percent of federal employees are “willing to put in the extra effort to get the job done.” Indeed, overall survey results show federal employees do show a strong “skills-mission” match. They want to do their jobs and do them well, despite gaps in morale and engagement.

And behind the average federal employee engagement score, which as noted is not stellar, there are some success stories of agencies where employees are mostly powerfully engaged. Best Places reports show in 2016 (and often year after year) strong engagement at top-performing large agencies like NASA (score, 78.6), the Commerce Department (67.9) and the intelligence agencies (67.0). Some smaller agencies actually show scores as high or higher than the private sector averages: the National Endowment for the Arts (85.9), the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (84.7), and the Office of Management and Budget (82.7), just to name a few. Even the troubled Department of Homeland Security showed a two-point gain.

Yet, with most of the government’s agencies facing an administration that wants to cut them severely—and in some instances, shut them down—it is more difficult to envision them continuing a favorable trend in engagement.

Next steps: PPS calls for broad reform

PPS has issued multiple recommendations in the light of the most recent and previous Best Places survey reports. Stier pressed the congressional panel on some of the most promising next steps PPS would like the federal government to take.

“The Partnership strongly urges Congress to conduct continued oversight of agency efforts to improve employee engagement,” Stier told the panel. “Beyond that, the Subcommittee should consider legislation to hold senior political leaders across government accountable in performance plans for managing well, including taking steps to improve the morale of employees within their organizations.”

As to specifics, Stier told the panel federal agencies must, first, make better use of the probationary period allotted to new employees. Often, no action or significant feedback occurs during this period, missing the best early opportunity to correct problems—or, if necessary, remove an employee who is performing poorly.  Agencies should also “provide better training to supervisors and and managers on performance management,” he said.

Stier also noted that PPS recommends that OPM’s employee survey questions should be improved, and significantly expanded, to obtain better, more actionable data. He also said that agencies should pay closer attention to morale, and that Congress should more routinely include monitoring morale at agencies as part of its oversight role. Political appointees should also “be held accountable for their contributions like every other employee”—their management efforts should be reviewed and scored.

Finally, at the broadest level, Congress should incentivize more positive changes, Stier said. Agencies should be pressed to promote innovation and the entire federal government should look into reforming what he termed the current “fractured” federal personnel system.

“While comprehensive civil service reform is a complex endeavor, the potential benefits to agency performance and employee morale combined with the pressing need for change, mean that now is the time for reform,” Stier concluded.

Several top federal managers and other experts also testified at the hearing, including Roberta Jeanquart, the director of HR management at the Department of Agriculture, Lacey Dingman, director of HR at the Security and Exchange Commission, and others.

For more on the hearing, go to: https://oversight.house.gov/hearing/best-worst-places-work-federal-government/ 

 

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