Federal leaders get lower marks than private-sector peers, new study shows

Amid sky-high CEO pay and years of cutbacks and layoffs, employees in private corporations may not rate their leaders very highly these days. But they still get better marks than supervisors in the federal government, according to a newly released study by the Partnership for Public Service.

The findings, released Wednesday, examine the leadership scores of the Office of Personnel Management’s 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and rank federal agencies by how well respondents felt their managers were doing their jobs. The results show that, government-wide, participants gave their organization’s leadership a score of just 54.9 out of 100. While that is higher than the year prior, it is still lower than the scores federal employees gave their agencies for categories such as pay, work/life balance and teamwork. In addition, the research shows that the federal government falls behind the private sector when it comes to what employees think of their leaders.

Gallery

Gallery

While a comprehensive comparison was not possible, the Partnership for Public Service highlighted the results of three leadership questions for which private-sector and public-sector data was available. All three showed higher scores for private-sector leaders.

The biggest gap appeared in response to a question about how satisfied employees feel about the information they get from their supervisors. On that issue, private-sector employees rated their leaders 14 points higher than government workers scored their managers. This comes as little surprise to Steve Ressler, the founder and president of GovLoop, a social network for government staffers.“That’s a common complaint” federal employees have, he says. “That’s one I hear too many times.”

Too many layers of management are the primary reason government agencies don’t share information as well as private-sector companies, which tend to have flatter hierarchies, says Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “Title creep continues unabated,” says Light, who has studied federal agency structure and wrote about it in his 1995 book, Thickening Government.

“At one time you were nobody if you didn’t have a chief of staff; now you’re nobody if you don’t have a deputy chief of staff.” With some agencies having as many as 64 layers of available jobs, by his last count, “it’s a glorified game of telephone,” Light says. “The structure itself is so mind-numbingly complicated that information gets lost and guidance gets missed on the way down.”

But bureaucratic management is just one reason communication can be worse for government staffers than for their corporate peers. Most agencies devote few resources to internal employee communications, says Ressler, putting their emphasis instead on external public and media relations. Add a cultural atmosphere that can be sensitive to sharing too much information and frequent turnover — Light says the average political appointee beneath the secretary’s post lasts just 18 to 24 months in the job — and it’s little wonder many employees feel left out of the loop.

According to the Office of Personnel Management data, employees in the private sector are also happier with their supervisors and felt they had more involvement in decisions affecting their work. On that question, their scores were six points higher than their public-sector peers’, a gap that doubled from 2010. Ressler says the structure of the federal government, which results in conflicting priorities that can be left up to the whims of Congress, serves to worsen this issue. “Government is a little bit of a unique beast,” he says. For employees, “there’s a lot that feels out of your control.”

Indeed, the Partnership for Public Service’s study found that empowerment was the biggest area of concern among its leadership questions. Just 46.3 percent of respondents said they felt personally empowered when it came to processes at work.

Multi-layered hierarchies that concentrate power at the top are not the only culprit, however. Edward E. Lawler, the director of the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, points to a lack of performance-based incentives in the public sector, especially compared to those in the private sector. This hurts workers’ sense of feeling empowered in their jobs. “When there’s more urgency around accountability and public reporting of results [as there is in many companies], more decision-making power flows down in the organization, too.”

While government agencies may be organized differently than corporations, John Palguta, the vice president for policy at the Partnership, notes any obstacles public sector leaders face can be overcome. “To empower employees in government requires a little bit of creativity and innovation,” he says. While “you can’t do what the GSA did,” Palguta jokes, spending exorbitantly on over-the-top leadership development conferences in Las Vegas, “I don’t think there’s anything inherent that prohibits an agency from empowering employees. It’s a heavier lift for government, but it’s not at all impossible.”

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