Report says FDA needs workforce improvements

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 19, 2012

The Food and Drug Administration’s mandate is too important to be compromised by a clunky personnel system.

The FDA is charged with protecting the nation’s public health by ensuring the safety of food, drugs and medical devices, among other things. But in 2007, an agency panel found that the FDA’s “scientific workforce does not have sufficient capacity and capability” and the agency is “not positioned to meet current or emerging regulatory responsibilities.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The Pew Charitable Trusts wanted to know if that’s still the case, because “FDA is critically important to protecting the public health,” said Kathleen Stratton, Pew’s director of the Innovate FDA Project. It asked the Partnership for Public Service to find out.

“FDA has made progress,” says the Partnership’s report, but the agency “continues to have significant workforce and management challenges in the scientific and medical arenas that need to be addressed.”

The Partnership will release its study, “The State of the FDA Workforce,” Tuesday. It cites several improvements the agency has made since 2007, including the use of visiting scientists, a fellowship program, new training for medical device reviewers, a peer review program and the return this year to the FDA of its human relations office, which had been centralized in the Department of Health and Human Services.

But the FDA’s HR system still isn’t the “well-oiled machine” Stratton says it needs to be.

Although the FDA cites a significant cut in hiring time, from 159 days to 80 days, the “hiring process is broken and needs fixing” because it “remains slow and cumbersome,” according to the Partnership. (The nonprofit organization has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

Almost half of the full-time permanent workforce earns more than $100,000, yet the freeze on basic pay rates that affects all federal employees, and the lack of raises and retention bonuses, have contributed to the FDA’s troubles. Scientists and doctors “can often earn more money in private industry, and that has been a perennial problem,” the report says.

Among the Partnership’s recommendations are that the FDA should develop targeted recruitment and talent pipelines and speed hiring; invest in career training and develop clear career paths for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine employees; and address high rates of attrition in certain areas, including pharmacy and consumer safety.

Pointing to the FDA’s “significant progress in improving our recruitment and retention practices,” Darla Callaghan, the agency’s director of human resources, said, “We take the report findings seriously and will consider the recommendations for addressing the workforce and management challenges.”

DHS morale problems

A recent Government Accountability Office report confirms what has become a truism within the Department of Homeland Security: It has morale problems.

This latest study says that “since it began operations in 2003, DHS employees have reported having low job satisfaction.” That low rating, the report continues, is one of “the challenges the department faces implementing its missions.”

Low morale is one reason the GAO “has designated the implementation and transformation of DHS as a high risk area, including its management of human capital, because it represents an enormous and complex undertaking that will require time to achieve in an effective and efficient manner,” the report says

DHS has used focus groups, employee surveys and exit interviews in morale-improvement efforts, but the problem persists.

Although the department as a whole has lower morale on average than other federal agencies, some components of DHS rate above average. And the department’s low morale is spread across many employee groups, including management and non-management, pay grade and tenure, according to the report, which analyzed Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data.

Levels of job satisfaction and job engagement vary widely among DHS agencies. On job satisfaction, the Transportation Security Administration is 14.7 percentage points below the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and 11.6 percentage points below the non-DHS average.

There also are wide variations within the TSA. The employee engagement index was 64.8 for the TSA’s federal security director staff and 50.9 for screeners.

“A TSA screener union representative described TSA’s performance assessment system as a key driver of morale problems among passenger screeners,” the report said. The American Federation of Government Employees represents screeners.

The GAO said DHS has tried to determine the root causes of low employee morale but needs to strengthen its action plan to deal with the problem. “DHS does not have specific metrics within the action plans that are consistently clear and measurable,” the GAO said.

In comments included with the report, DHS agreed with the GAO’s recommendations to improve the department’s analysis of the causes of the morale problems and to establish better action-plan metrics.

“DHS is committed to improving employee engagement and morale,” the department’s letter to the GAO said.

In March, Catherine Emerson, personnel chief at DHS, told a congressional hearing that the department has a three-pronged strategy to improve employee morale. It comprises instructing agency heads to prioritize employee engagement; working to improve communication, training, diversity and employee recognition; and strengthening leadership skills and capacity.

“We recognize the difficulties that exist due to the many organizational cultures that were brought together when the Department was created nine years ago,” her written testimony said, “but these difficulties are not insurmountable and we will continue to move forward.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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