Expert: Survey shows morale drop among feds—but similar issues weigh on wider workforce

Nathan Abse interviews Iowa State University's "Dr. Politics," political scientist Steffen Schmidt, on recent polling revealing gloomier feds, against the broader context of worries weakening engagement across American workplaces—with causes that are economic, political and cultural.

The Office of Personnel Management conducts the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), collecting the opinions and measuring the relative engagement and morale of feds on an annual basis. A leading nonprofit good government group, the Partnership for Public Service, follows up using the OPM’s survey data to create its Best Places to Work analysis. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the usual rhythms and releases produced from these efforts, but this month PPS and its partner Boston Consulting released their report. Their analysis offers the usual lists—ranking agencies large and small, as well as reporting interesting overall trends. Most striking this year, drawing on data from the end of 2021, is the generally downward movement of federal employee engagement—a phenomenon seen across almost all large departments. Nathan Abse discusses these trends and looks at them in the broader context with Steffen Schmidt—an emeritus political science professor at Iowa State University. Schmidt—“Dr. Politics” to many—argues that in recent years, yes, the pandemic and its aftermath caused some of the morale problems but that also far broader societal and political trends are weighing on federal employees.

Q&A with Steffen Schmidt

Prof. Schmidt, why has morale dropped, in your opinion, across so many agencies—as seen in recent analyses of the FEVS survey?

Schmidt: There are likely many factors. But the attack on anything government—especially federal government—by all kinds of groups and media has had a terrible impact on employees. It is definitely part of this.

PPS analysts note the negative impacts of the pandemic—as you have, too—but they focus additionally on delays in appointments and confirmations as being part of the problem, right?

Schmidt: Yes.

Instead of attacks on government or negative effects of the pandemic, some opinion pieces are directly blaming President Biden, arguing fed morale mirrors opinion polls. Your opinion on this?

Schmidt: No. I don’t agree with that. It’s not Joe Biden’s fault. The condescension, criticism, and attacks on the federal government—and on its employees—has been going on for years by certain segments of the American media and political groups. And recent events resulting in violence, and all kinds of very aggressive demonstrations by the [political] left and right, have exacerbated this tension.

Any other factors hurting feds’ morale, more generally?

Schmidt: I would say the reduction of funding and staffing for many agencies—which has unfolded over years—has put unspeakable pressure on many of these employees. There’s a whole list of such agencies—the underfunded Internal Revenue Service, the overworked and downsized U.S. Postal Service, and a number of others, was absolutely bound to lead to nothing but the morale decline we are currently seeing.

In the most recent survey and analyses, what’s remarkable is that engagement at every large agency slipped at least some, the only exception (among large agencies) was the VA. Surprising?

Schmidt: No one should be surprised. I am not. The same thing would happen—and is happening in the private sector—when a company or organization starts falling apart. Just look at the headlines about that morale rot, going on at various companies.

Can you give our readers some examples?

Schmidt: The point is these problems go well beyond the federal government. In recent news and analyses, we see that 47 million people changed jobs or left their jobs in what some call the “Great Reshuffling.” We see big and previously successful companies like Peloton struggling to hang on to employees. Companies and other levels of government are all seeing they must take steps—and offer incentives—to boost morale and try to retain their workforce.

If I understand you correctly, you’ve said that in addition to long-term underfunding, understaffing and leadership problems at federal agencies, there is a growing problem of politicizing—of political problems in the larger society affecting the bureaucracy and feds, right?

Schmidt: Yes, I do. And I think the Democrats could have gone on the offensive, and said, that it's the Trump administration's fault that the morale is declining in the government and that agencies aren't able to accomplish their objectives. Do you remember that? Because that was one of his presidency’s objectives. But, you know, these problems have been going on for a while. There is a paralysis, you know, where basically nobody has a majority, to do or make any decisions on direction.

Yes, many readers—and I—do remember that the Trump administration generally talked down federal employees and openly attacked agencies—but can you go deeper about “paralysis”?

Schmidt: Democrats don't really have a majority, and for many feds I think that’s discouraging. Because, you know, you're sitting there trying to basically implement various programs that Congress has mandated and regulatory agencies have written rules on how they must be implemented. And yet what you're seeing is that what you are doing is considered to be either not enough especially by progressives—on many issues—and yet at the same time an overreach of “government bureaucracy” by others, by many conservatives. So, it’s now many years where you're sitting there going, I'm trying to do the best I can, you know, but they've slashed my budget, and we don't have enough people. So, what can we expect?

So, you see fed morale hurt by unsupportive politics—but that there are similar trends in the wider economy and at other levels of government?

Schmidt: Yes. We see now many private companies that have begun to lose their focus or their market. And people also quit them, or don’t want to do the work, because it all seems sort of hopeless. I'm afraid that we're in a situation like that—where all around us we're seeing at the state level, at the county level, and certainly nationally, an attack on government, either from the left or the right—and often actually, both are doing it. And if you’re a public servant, you are caught in this sandwich. It does affect your morale.

You have suggested from your observations that it’s not just government and economic trends, it’s societal trends?

Schmidt: Federal employees are not immune to those larger trends these days. But it applies to almost everyone now. The fact that when people send their kids to school, they don't know if their kids are going to come back alive—or in a body bag. That is how it is right now. So it’s unfair to single out feds. It’s not just a bureaucracy that's depressed. I mean, if read surveys—or you go around and just talk to people, you’ll find people are horribly stressed out. It is not just because of inflation, or high gas prices, or hotter than usual weather. It’s all kinds of these things. And government employees are not immune, they are not protected from the general sort of tension that exists in the country today.

What do you make of the survey analysis, itself?

Schmidt: I think it's a great survey. It's informative, but you know, many bureaucrats—many public servants of all kinds--are apt to get pretty demoralized in the current environment. Like other workplaces—it’s kind of like, get in line take a number!

You’ve noted deep problems specific to the federal workplace—and many beyond it—as causes for lower morale numbers. But since you spotlight our current polarizing politics, I ask: What did we once have that we don’t have now?

Schmidt: We had compromise. We know everything that used to work involved compromise, right? Yet now we don't do it, leading to paralysis. The recent trend of “sending everything back to the States” is part of a horribly polarizing philosophy. Many state governments espouse positions far out of step with the mean—even a regional mean—opinion. So, sending "everything back to the states”  creates whole areas of extreme policies, no compromise—worsening tensions. Also, we had no social media. Social media created communities of once-isolated extremists. They have impact, and impede compromise. I used to warn students that the U.S. is not a natural country. Politicians, leaders and economic forces forged it through compromises. Without them, regions could go their own way. We could wind up as five different countries, if we keep focusing on our differences, unable to make compromises. 

This Q&A article has been edited for length and clarity. 

NEXT STORY: Fighting words

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