As employee morale stagnates and budget pressures ratchet up, strong federal leaders appear to be even more scarce than ever.
Employee satisfaction with top agency leadership dipped in 2012 for the first time in a decade, following years of slight but consistent gains.
Leadership scores fell to 52.8 points on a 100-point scale, a drop of 2.1 points from 2011 levels, according to a new report from the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte. That’s not the lowest score on record — in fact, it’s about comparable to 2009 levels — however, it is the first time in the last 10 years that overall scores dropped year-over-year.
The report is based on data from the Office of Personnel Management’s 2012 Employee Viewpoint Survey. PPS also uses the data to create its annual rankings of “The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.”
Scores for top leaders suffer
When ranked with other workplace attributes, employees’ opinions of leaders nosedived. Of 10 workplace categories measured by the OPM survey, opinions of effective leadership ranked ninth, scoring below pay, work-life balance and teamwork.
The leadership score is made up of a number of components, all of which declined in 2012.
The degree to which employees felt empowered in their jobs – one of the components of the leadership score — saw the biggest drop, falling 2.7 points to 45.8 points.
However, the drop in employees’ opinions of agency heads and their senior management teams is perhaps the most worrisome, according to the report. That’s because opinions of senior leaders typically represent “the largest driver of employee satisfaction,” the report stated. In 2012, employees’ opinions of senior agency leaders fell to 46.7 points, a 2.6 point drop.
The silver lining is that most federal employees continue to rate front-line supervisors more highly. In 2012, supervisors scored 62.3 points, more than 15 points higher than senior leaders. However, even that is below 2011 levels.
Agency scores vary
In terms of individual agencies’ leadership scores, NASA scored the highest, with 68.1 points. The Homeland Security Department leaders ranked last, with a score of 45.7 — a drop of nearly two points from 2011.
However, as the report noted, scores varied widely by agency. And, despite the governmentwide drop across agencies, there were some individual success stories. Six of the 19 large agencies included in the report improved their leadership scores in 2012, with the biggest improvements in effective leadership coming at the Transportation Department.
However, overall, scores for federal leaders lagged behind those of private-sector leaders. One of the key areas federal leaders struggle with compared to private-sector leaders is in communicating effectively with their workforces, according to the report.
“The negative trends in federal leadership … should be a call to action,” the report concluded. “Federal employees today are living in an environment of great uncertainty given budgetary constraints, pay freezes and staffing cutbacks, and at the same time feel less empowered to do their jobs and are less satisfied with the way their senior leaders are handling their agencies. Given the current environment, sustained attention to improving leadership is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
The report recommended a few simple steps senior leaders should take to improve their scores. Agency leaders should communicate a clear vision of the agency’s mission and how individual workers fit into this vision. In addition, leaders should become more familiar to their rank-and-file employees.
“Find ways to let employees know they are valued, including getting to know them by walking the halls and listening to their concerns,” the report recommended.