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.”
More from On Leadership:
PHOTOS | Federal leadership rankings
Managing stress in the federal workplace
Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter