Concerns with pay and bosses cause dip in federal worker job satisfaction

November 16, 2011

If that federal employee sitting next to you on the Metro each morning seems a little grumpier these days, she’s not the only one.

Satisfaction among federal workers is down for the first time in four years, according to an annual survey of government agencies that ranks attitudes about everything from agency leaders to workplace culture.

Concerns about pay, leadership and departments’ missions are the main factors behind the growing gloom. Agency heads and the rank and file agree that President Obama’s decision to freeze salaries for two years and Republican efforts to cut government programs are contributing to the unease in federal offices.

The pay freeze “keeps qualified candidates from looking at us,” said Barbara Rose, a clinical program specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “We need at least five more people in my office.”

“We’re learning to do more with a lot less,” said John Reynolds, a management analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency. “But that’s consistent across the country, not just in government.”

Government-wide, 64 percent of employees were satisfied with their work, a slight drop of 1.5 percentage points from last year but the most pronounced dip in the history of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings. Morale improved at just 31 of the 308 federal agencies, bureaus, departments and offices in the survey, published by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan think tank.

Some offices are islands of relative happiness: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. scored the highest among larger agencies, earning an overall score of 85.9 percent out of 100 and dethroning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which placed first in the past three surveys.

But other agencies are struggling: The National Archives and Records Administration placed last among large agencies, plummeting more than seven points from last year, the worst year-to-year drop of any large agency.

Archivist David Ferriero said a reorganization plan is causing a fair amount of turnover. “For some people, the reorganization is a breath of fresh air, and for other people, it’s an issue of dealing with change,” he said.

Among smaller agencies, the Surface Transportation Board topped the list for the third time, earning 91.1 out of 100, the survey’s all-time high score. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative placed last for small agencies.

Lorraine Green, the trade office’s senior human resources official, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the agency is “very concerned” about its rankings and plans to hold employee focus groups to determine how to improve.

Among other top performers, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan congressional auditor, finished third among large agencies, dropping from second last year. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a first-time participant that monitors nuclear safety issues, placed second among smaller agencies, followed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

In addition to topping the rankings of large agencies, the FDIC had the largest year-to-year gain, climbing 8.5 percentage points.

Acting FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg said in an interview Tuesday that his agency earned its score because its clearly defined mission to insure bank deposits gives workers a sense of purpose.

“It’s terribly important for employees to understand the mission of the agency and how the work they do relates to it,” he said. “If you can make it clear and apparent, I think that’s enormous motivation for people.”

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said his agency’s drop “is a reflection of a very challenging year, not just at NRC, but for the federal workforce in general.”

The rankings matter so much to top agency bosses that Jaczko, attending meetings in India, re­arranged his schedule Tuesday to call and discuss NRC’s slippage.

Though the NRC scored high — 79.1 percent — survey data show that worker concerns with pay and year-end bonuses dragged it down. Year-end performance bonuses at the NRC can supplement an employee’s income by as much as 9 percent, according to Dale Yeilding, president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter representing about 3,000 NRC workers. But the agency is attempting to curtail such awards amid government-wide guidance from the Obama administration to limit them.

“I’m basically negotiating for about $2 million” to make up for cuts in bonuses, Yeilding said Tuesday, adding that extra paid time off is likely to supplement for the losses.

Pay is a growing concern across the government, and the survey showed that the most senior career federal employees are most upset. Overall satisfaction with pay dropped to 59 percent — a six-point fall from last year and one of the largest drops in any category measured.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said declining support for federal salaries should come as no surprise amid talk of further cutbacks.

“If you’re just taking money out of the system, you will clearly do damage to the system,” he said. And despite growing concerns, Stier said, federal workers are still more satisfied than they were when the survey began in 2003.

“In a market without jobs, it makes you pretty appreciative of yours,” said Nikki Scott of Maryland, who works for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Worker perceptions of top agency bosses also depressed survey results, according to Stier. For example, the Office of Personnel Management improved by about 5 percentage points overall and earned its best rankings ever thanks to high scores for Director John Berry and his team. But just five Cabinet secretaries earned leadership scores above 50 percent, the survey said.

Among large agencies, there appears to be growing trouble at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where workers once again gave poor scores and dropped the agency from third place overall in 2007 to 27th this year.

“I thought we would be lower than that, frankly,” said Greg Gilman, president of the Treasury union chapter representing 2,800 SEC employees.

Collective bargaining negotiations over a new performance-management system are going poorly, Gilman said, adding that his colleagues are “becoming increasingly concerned that low morale may have a negative impact on mission readiness.”

In a statement, the SEC said its workers are “doing far more than we have ever been asked to do, in an organization that is undergoing significant and rapid change.”

This year’s rankings are based on the opinions of more than 276,000 federal employees, the most ever. Scores are determined by analyzing data collected in the OPM’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, conducted April 4 through May 31.

An additional 10,000 employees at about a dozen agencies not participating in the OPM’s survey also submitted questionnaires for analysis by the partnership, which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post. Full results will be available
starting Wednesday at www.
bestplacestowork.org
.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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