4 takeaways from the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

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The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has released the results of the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The results show that the upward movement in employee satisfaction that began two years ago is continuing. That is good news. Many in and out of government had expected the presidential transition to have the opposite effect.

The FEVS results are positive, with good increases in employee satisfaction in many agencies, including the Homeland Security Department. As with most surveys, people are already deciding what the results mean and why they are what they are. Readers should not be surprised if some folks draw conclusions that neatly align with their preconceptions about the workforce, individual agencies, and the government as a whole. For example, some are saying that the improvement in results is a direct result of the approach of the new administration, while others are saying that the results stem from fear of the Trump administration.

Rather than trying to read something into the results that is not supported by the data, I prefer to see what key takeaways we can get from the actual results. Here are four facts that stand out.

The response rate dropped from 45.8 percent in 2016 to 45.5 percent in 2017, and that is neither good nor bad. Response rates can tell us a lot of things, such as whether employees think agencies will use the data to make changes. If we saw a drop or increase of a few percent, it might tell us something. This change is minor and does not say much of anything. Where it does tell us something is in individual agency response rates. For example, the Department of Transportation had an increase of 5.8 percent. The Department of the Army saw a 7.1 percent increase. Those are noteworthy increases that may tell us something about the credibility of leaders or the mood of the workforce, but it would take a deep dive into the agency data to say what it really means.

The answers for almost all FEVS questions were more positive. The fact that there were so many increases and so few drops most likely means the mood of the workforce is generally better. The data that has been publicly released does not tell us why, but it is a good sign. What is most noteworthy is that the trend has continued for several years.

There are some questions with very high agreement. It should come as no surprise that almost everyone said they are willing to put in extra effort to get the job done, or that they look for ways to do their jobs better. The only people who would be surprised by that are the folks who have no respect for the federal workforce. After working in and around the government for almost 40 years, it is not at all surprising to me. Another subject that may surprise some folks is the high ratings federal workers give their supervisors on some important questions, with 80 percent or more agreeing that their supervisors treat them with respect and support their need for work/life balance. That tells me that when federal workers complain about leadership in their agencies, they are not talking about their first level supervisors.

There are no surprises in the questions with the lowest agreement, but they remain troubling. Unlike their view of supervisors, only 32 percent of respondents believe senior leaders in their organizations generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce. We should expect to see some differences in how people perceive their supervisor and senior leaders, if for no other reason than that supervisors are people they see every day and know well. Senior leaders may be more distant and the amount of direct contact more limited. Even so, the gap between employee perceptions of their supervisors and senior leaders is a problem.

Another perennial problem is the belief that agencies do not do well in dealing with poor performers. Only 31 percent of respondents (up from 29 percent last year) agreed that their agencies take steps to deal with problem employees, while 42 percent disagreed. This one is significant. It means the people who are often most aware of problem employees, and who have to pick up the slack when the problem folks do not do their work, are not seeing real improvement. Seeing a coworker not perform or behave badly with no consequences can drive employee engagement down in a big way. I believe it is the single most important change agencies could make to change employee perceptions of their jobs.

Data and graphics are from OPM’s 2017 FEVS Governmentwide Management Report

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.