Survey shows falling satisfaction among federal employees

Joe Davidson
Columnist December 6, 2012

When he released a federal worker survey on the afternoon before Thanksgiving, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry forthrightly noted that “continued tight budgets and pay freezes” contributed to many lower ratings.

The report goes a bit further, suggesting “the downward trend of many of the survey items . . . suggest that the continued tight budgets, salary freezes and general public opinion of federal service are beginning to take a toll on even the most committed employees.”

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

Those reasons and the findings should serve as a cautionary note to Congress and the Obama administration as they look for ways to cut spending in an attempt to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

Yet, the reasons given for the falling marks in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey don’t fully explain the degree of discontent indicated by details deep in the report.

But before we focus on the negative, here’s the positive.

“Even faced with difficult and uncertain times, nearly all federal employees (90 percent or more) report the work they do is important, are constantly looking for ways to better do their jobs and are willing to put in the extra effort to get the job done,” the report says.

“Over 80 percent of employees like the work they do, understand how their work relates to their agency’s goals and priorities, and rate the overall quality of the work done by their work unit as high. Employees feel they are held accountable for achieving results and know what is expected of them. Nearly three out of four employees believe their agency is successful at accomplishing its mission, feel that their co-workers cooperate to get the job done, and feel they have enough information to do their job well.”

That’s cool, but why are so many other indicators pointed the wrong way, literally?

The report’s Appendix D, which contains a trend analysis for the years 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012. indicates that there is far more bad news than good within the workforce this year. The appendix uses arrows to show significant trends in 84 categories. How many have arrows pointed up for positive movement from 2011 to 2012?

Two. Just two out of 84.

“How would you rate the overall quality of work done by your work unit?” (82.2 percent in 2011 to 83.4 percent in 2012) and “how satisfied are you with . . . telework” (69.7 to 72.9) are the only questions that rated upward arrows.

Many items that fell don’t appear directly linked to the budget problems Berry cited. John Palguta, who has examined the report for the Partnership for Public Service, said there might be a “halo effect” that allows the bad vibes of the pay freeze and budget cuts to influence perception of other issues.

“The biggest thing,” he said, is “increasing workload and decreasing resources.” The partnership uses the survey to formulate its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, which will be released Thursday. (The partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

Several questions with falling positive replies are related more to the leadership of managers and supervisors than to their budgets. For example, after a steady rise from 2008 through 2011 (40.2 to 45.0), this year saw a drop in the percentage (42.9) who responded positively to “in my organization, leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.”

Even positive replies to “I believe the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work” fell from 2011 to 2012 (45.3 to 42.4).

But at the same time, at least a couple of items that do seem related to budgets increased in positive replies, although to a tiny degree. “I have sufficient resources . . . to get my job done” (48.0) and “Physical conditions . . . allow employees to perform their jobs well” (67.5) each rose by 0.2 percentage points from last year to this, not enough to rate an upward arrow in the appendix.

Jonathan Foley, OPM’s director of planning and policy analysis, takes a longer view, going back four years. Overall, it indicates an upward trend beginning in 2008, he said, “and so what we see this year is essentially a leveling off.”

That is true in some cases. The improved response to “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear or reprisal” is an example. The percentage of positive replies rose substantially from 54.8 in 2008 to 62.5 last year. The question scored a down arrow this year because the percent positive fell slightly to 61.5.

In other cases, the fall below 2008 levels is troubling. Then, 83.9 percent said “the people I work with cooperate to get the job done.” This year, 72.8 agreed. Cooperation doesn’t come with a price tag. Both these items probably have more to do with managers than money.

While the wave of downward arrows is dispiriting, Palguta, the optimist, sees the silver lining.

This year, he said, probably represents a “bottoming out.”

“Barring something unusual,” he predicted, “2013 should be an up year.”

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

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