Federal Employees News Digest
Study: Federal agencies resilient, doing "fine"
- By Nathan Abse
- Oct 18, 2021
Despite the last administration’s proclamations on pruning the federal civil service—and a slew of stories and studies of heavy morale and material impacts from President Trump’s ballyhooed blasting of the so-called federal “swamp”—a new study finds just the opposite: executive branch agencies and their employees are doing—for the most part—just “fine,” thank you very much.
The study is part of Rethinking Our Democracy, a joint venture from the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government and the associated Protect Our Democracy project.
“My research shows that the administrative state is in relatively good shape, according to the people who make it work,” stated David E. Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, and researcher on the project. “Indeed, it seems to be about as effective or more effective than private-sector firms across many areas. Specific agencies have problems, and some crosscutting issues endure, but the overall administrative state is doing … well.”
Lewis and the Rethinking project—including academics from Princeton and Georgetown, as well as the Partnership for Public Service—surveyed over 1,500 career and political appointee officials in government. They adapted a major private-sector enterprise’s survey research questions, to “create a nonpartisan,” clear picture of the functioning of government.
On many issues, surprisingly, federal agencies scored very similarly to the average performance of private firms.
“We have enough employees to do a quality job?” is one key survey question asked of federal executives as well as those at private firms. In reply, 56% of federal executives answered, “yes”—they had enough employees—versus a near-same 58% of leaders at private companies. Not much difference there.
“The work environment at my agency / company supports development of new and innovative ideas,” reads another crucial survey entry. To many this will come as a shock: Slightly more federal leaders, 69%, agreed with this statement than did private-sector leaders, at 66%, according to Rethinking Our Democracy’s published results.
Perhaps even more encouraging news for feds is the section of the survey that examines merit principles, an often self-proclaimed strong suit of the civil service. It appears there may be, at least by this one measure, something to the boast. When offered the survey statement, “Promotions in my work group are based on a person’s ability,” only 53% of private-sector leaders polled agreed, whereas 63% of public-sector leaders did.
Enduring trouble spots
Lewis and his team, of course, found some areas where the federal workplace trails the public sector’s. Much of today’s management science focuses on the ability of organizations to adapt to change—and in particular, to use data effectively to accomplish good adaptations. The Rethinking survey research shows on this front, feds fall behind.
“Fewer federal executives report that their organizations are making decisions based upon data, and fewer report engaging in long-term planning,” the study notes. Specifically, when confronted with the statement, “My workgroup makes decisions based on data,” fully 72% of private-sector leaders agree, versus only 62% of fed execs.
And federal flaws deepen even further in one area that many feds, in other research (for example in annual Office of Personnel Management workplace surveys), consistently register significant dissatisfaction: effective handling of less-than-stellar employees. Faced with the Rethinking survey statement “At my agency / company, we deal effectively with poor performers,” only 25% of feds agree versus fully 47% of private-sector leaders agree (not great either, but far better.)
Previous reports buttressed by surveys and other research on the federal civil service in recent years, particularly during the last administration, have highlighted damage to morale and other aspects of numerous agencies’ functioning.
In fact, the regular OPM survey, as analyzed by PPS, showed an average decline in “engagement”—morale—of about half a point in 2018, and then again in 2019.
“This year’s rankings tell the tale of two governments,” Max Stier, president and CEO of PPS, said of his org’s 2018 analysis. “One part of our government has agencies with committed leaders who are fostering high and improving levels of employee engagement. The other part of our government is handicapped by a lack of leadership that has led to static or declining employee engagement.”
The problem of uneven measurements—of only some agencies experiencing a rise in morale, while others dropped—happened during the last administration, as well as previous ones. However, the two years of sizeable drops in morale, and the even more palpable drop at certain agencies that were loudly undermined by the White House at the time—for example, at EPA and the State Department—attests to, depending on your goals for the federal government’s ability to function, these deeper issues.
That is, there were purposeful and repetitive attacks on public servants from the very top—the Rethinking project’s overall sunnier findings notwithstanding—creating some deeper wounds than the average scores imply. (Morale improved on average, interestingly, in the tragic pandemic year 2020. Much of the improvement might be chalked up to employee satisfaction with the vast COVID-era expansion of telework.)
But a main finding of current study, centered on these and many other basic survey questions, is that the federal government and its employees—though perhaps badly battered at some agencies (for example, EPA, in consecutive surveys exhibited low morale in recent years)—have been very resilient. The civil service at most agencies continues to hold up despite the overt anti-civil service rhetoric and actions taken under the Trump administration.
“For all of the concern about the Trump presidency and its effects on the administrative state, our data suggest that federal agencies are just as healthy as large private-sector organizations on many dimensions,” Lewis concludes. “Long-standing weaknesses in the way we select executives and structure the civil service, however, continue to plague the federal administration.”