Four things that bother federal executives about their agencies

Vanderbilt researchers David Lewis and Mark Richardson discuss their survey with Emily Kopp

Federal executives say they are stressed out at work and they aren’t getting the recognition they say they deserve. Those sentiments underscore a new “Future of Government Service” survey that shows how much career and political leaders worry about the capacity of their workforce and their agencies’ performances.

Vanderbilt University, Princeton University and the nonprofit Volcker Alliance attempted to gauge how Senior Executive Service members, political appointees and other federal directors thought about issues facing the federal workforce.

The survey, conducted late last year, measured agency situations from 3,551 participants based on four key components: employee recruitment, employee retention, executive promotion, and non-manager dismissal.

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Frustration with poor performers

Overall, results showed lagging dismissals for under-performing employees is a major issue across agencies.

Seventy percent of executives reported that under-performing non-managers are “rarely or never” reassigned or dismissed, and that only four percent are ever let go or reassigned within six months.

This correlates with responses from the 2014’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, where only 28.2 percent of federal employees felt actions were taken against poor performers in their agencies.

Yet, Dave Lewis, one of the lead survey researchers from Vanderbilt, said that making it easier to let workers go won’t solve other issues related to recruitment and retention.

“If the only thing you do is say this is a terrible place to work, and we’re going to make it easier to fire people, who wants to work there? If you’ve got other options, you’re out of there. You’d want to go work somewhere else.”

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Executives say they can’t hire good job candidates

Finding good workforce candidates to replace under-performers is another roadblock for federal executives.

The survey reports that 42 percent of executives can’t recruit the best employees for their agencies. Yet, it isn’t because hopefuls don’t have the skill to do the job.

“One of the things that didn’t show up as much as we thought was lack of a qualified applicant pool, ” Lewis said.

According to responses, federal executives say “lack of resources,”  “political pressure to keep workforce growth low,” and “low salaries” are some issues keeping them from hiring potential future employees.

“It looks like there are people who want to enter government,” Lewis said, “But somehow, there’s something keeping them out.”

Political appointees aren’t the only ones on their way out

Nearly a quarter of career executives report they are “likely” or “very likely” to leave their agency within a year.  Last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint survey responses show that two thirds of federal workforce employees don’t believe they have opportunities to pursue better positions in their organizations.

Coupled with the fact that close to 40 percent of executives are approached with better-paying job opportunities outside of their agency in 2014 alone, Lewis said its not surprising that a third of executives report its difficult retaining their best employees.

“If you survey the departers from the Senior Executive Service, 70 percent of them say, ‘No one asked me to stay,” he said. “Why isn’t someone saying, ‘You’ve been here a long time. You have a lot of institutional memory. Stay for a little bit longer. Help us get through this difficult period'”?

Even at the executive level, respondents said they were frustrated with a lack of career opportunities and growth at their agencies.

A little recognition would be nice

Executives also say  40 percent of promotion decisions of non-managers are solely made based on performance and ability.

Responses from the 2014 employee viewpoint survey show that creativity and innovation are not valued in the workplace, and that only 32 percent of participants believe promotions are based on merit.

Even if creativity could produce better results, executives feel they won’t be recognized for their efforts, and are unwilling to strive for higher positions within their agencies because of it.

Thanks, but I’ll pass

Collectively, these issues make executives unwilling to take on higher-level leadership positions.

Barely more than half of eligible respondents want to join the Senior Executive Service or become a Senior Professional if offered a position.

Yet, executives reported they feel their work is meaningful, and so long as they see future changes towards performance and ability determining promotions and dismissals, executives are likely to recommend public service as a career to others.