Troubling signs lurk beneath optimistic employee survey results

The 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey paints a rosier picture of life in federal offices today compared with last year’s bleak outlook, when the workforce was recovering from a government shutdown, furloughs and sequestration. Federal employees overall are more optimistic about their jobs, coworkers, leaders and compensation than they were in 2014. They are passionate about their work and willing to put in extra effort to see their missions accomplished.

But a closer look at the data reveals troubling signs, some of which could provide fodder for a Congress that wants to tinker with federal operations. Below are six facts — both good and bad —gleaned from the survey.

The good: feds remain committed to their work

Even through the dark times of 2013 and 2014, nearly all federal employees who took the survey said they were committed to their work. This year is no better, but it could be much, much worse. Ninety-six percent of respondents say they are willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done when needed. Nearly as many — nine in 10 — say their work is important and they are constantly looking for ways to do their jobs better.

Engagement depends on status

The Obama administration has harped on agencies to improve employee engagement on the theory that committed employees will do their jobs better. The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the survey, has compiled an engagement index based on several individual questions that probe employees’ views on their work experience, supervisors and leaders.

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Supervisors are more engaged in their work than rank-and-file employees. Senior executives are the most engaged of all. The gap has been widening for years. Supervisors and senior executives’ survey answers suggest they’ve bounced back to their pre-shutdown attitudes. The same can’t be said of frontline employees.

At the same time, the data shows that employees, overall, are most engaged with their work in their first four years on the job. Employee engagement dips among those who have been at their agencies longer, before rising again when employees reach their tenth work anniversary. Newer employees are in their “honeymoon period” said Kimya Lee, the senior advisor on research and evaluation at OPM. The trend holds true outside the government as well, she said.

“Newer employees are excited about their work,” she said. “As they continue within their agency, organization or nonprofit, they get more involved with the ins and outs of the day-to-day work.”

Those ins and outs, apparently, are not as enticing.

Lackluster leaders still a problem

When asked whether their senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment, 39 percent of survey respondents answered positively. Last year, 38 percent did. While the numbers suggest progress, no one at OPM is jumping for joy. [OPM defines “senior leaders” as anyone above an employee’s direct supervisor.]

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The leadership component has historically and consistently been low and generally trending downward, although it did improve by 1 percent this year,” said OPM Director Beth Cobert. She noted that responses varied widely by agency, suggesting that there is no boilerplate fix.

Among big-agency leaders, those at the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are most admired by their employees, based on survey questions that ask about leaders’ characters, communication skills, abilities to motivate employees and performance. Those at the Homeland Security Department are the least admired.

DHS’ scores have been at the bottom of the government for years as the agency has grappled with scandals in some of its components and high turnover. This year it faced an additional obstacle. While Congress settled on a budget for the rest of the government in December, it held DHS’ funding in limbo until February. Employees responded to the survey just a few months later, in April and May.

Leaders at the Veterans Affairs Department, another large agency with its share of troubles in recent years, fared relatively well, all things considered. They outscored leaders at more low profile agencies, including the Interior Department and Small Business Administration.

And even DHS employees are thankful they’re not working at the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. The small agency’s leaders received the lowest score in the government. Just 15 percent of the board’s employees who responded to the survey gave their leaders high marks.  The board’s former chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso, resigned in March following allegations that he had abused his position and retaliated against whistleblowers.

Most feds don’t think agencies can handle poor performers

Just 28 percent of survey respondents say their work units take steps to deal with poor-performing colleagues.

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“That’s always one of the lower-rated items,” said John Salamone, a former OPM official now with Federal Management Partners. “But it might be an issue that the Hill would lock onto.”

Several members of Congress have accused federal leaders of ignoring or trying to cover up employee misconduct. Already, the House has advanced legislation to make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to demote or fire employees for poor performance. The survey results could provide more ammunition to supporters of the bill.

Techies are less satisfied than other feds

Tech professionals are less likely to approve of their colleagues’ skills, senior leaders and job training than people in other mission-critical career fields.

OPM compared IT specialists’ answers with those of economists, auditors, human resources specialists and contract specialists. Thirty-seven percent of information technology specialists say their work units are able to recruit people with the right skills, compared with 43 percent for all of the fields combined and 41 percent for all other survey respondents.

Just four in ten IT specialists said their senior leaders generated high levels of commitment. Forty-six percent say they were satisfied with their job training.

The Obama administration has hired outside tech experts to help improve federal digital services through boutique organizations such as the U.S. Digital Services and the General Services Administration’s 18F. It has also rushed to shore up federal cyber defenses following multiple breaches of OPM databases that contained sensitive information on millions of federal employees.

The survey findings highlight the federal government’s challenges in recruiting and keeping IT and cyber talent, said Cobert.

“This helps us understand the problem. It doesn’t give us the answers to the problem. That’s work for all of us to do,” she said.