Federal leadership on the decline, report says

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 3, 2013

Why can’t Uncle Sam do a better job of managing his agencies?

Look to leadership.

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

Those directing federal agencies have much room for improvement, particularly when it comes to communicating with the rank and file, according to the report “Federal Leadership on the Decline.”

“While federal employees have not given high marks to their leaders for years, satisfaction with leadership dropped in 2012 for the first time since the Best Places to Work rankings were published in 2003,” says the Partnership for Public Service study.

The leadership data are drawn from the Best Places rankings, which are based on the Office of Personnel Management’s 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Overall, the leadership score was 52.8 on a 100-point scale, a drop of 2.1 points from 2011. That doesn’t sound like much, but “it is definitely significant and consequential,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive.

The news isn’t all bad.

Drawing on lessons learned at the Department of Transportation, which demonstrated the greatest increase in leadership scores, the report offers suggestions for agency leaders, such as:

●“Find ways to let employees know they are valued, including getting to know them by walking the halls and listening to their concerns.”

●“Hold themselves accountable, with improving workplace satisfaction scores incorporated into their performance plans.”

●“Recognize and reward jobs well done, which does not necessarily require monetary incentives.”

Though this is the first drop since 2003, when the score was 49.1, the current rating remains higher than all but the previous two years. Nonetheless, the drop during a period of otherwise steady increases is an unwelcome indication of how things are being run in government agencies.

“The decrease in satisfaction with senior leaders is especially worrisome,” the report said. The effective leadership of senior managers is “the largest driver of employee satisfaction and commitment.”

Here’s another disturbing tidbit: “In 2012, those federal employees planning to leave their jobs in the next year rated their agency 35 points lower in the effective leadership category than those planning to stay. This satisfaction gap between those planning to stay and those planning to leave was larger in leadership than any other workplace category.”

There’s a lot of talent in the U.S. government, but not so much that Sam can afford to have weak leadership play a role in running good workers away. Part of the problem is that leadership doesn’t communicate with staff well enough.

That certainly has been the case during the numerous budget emergencies and threatened government shutdowns federal employees have had to endure in recent years. Many times, federal employees have told us they didn’t know what was happening with an impending crisis, although the administration did do a better job during this current period of sequester budget-cutting.

“Compared to the private sector, federal leaders have more difficulty communicating effectively within their agencies,” the report says. “The government lags behind the private sector by 17 points on employee satisfaction with the information they receive from management regarding what’s going on in their organization.”

Business leaders are more adept at using social media and other means to encourage two-way communication with staffers, according to Dan Helfrich, a principal with the consulting firm Deloitte, which worked with the partnership on the report.

“Agencies that are getting ahead are actively seeking the input of their employees,” he said. Social media are one tool, he added, but old-fashioned ways that allow people to actually talk with each other — such as town hall meetings, employee councils and focus groups — also work.

Ahead of the others in the report’s large-agency rankings are NASA at the top and the intelligence agencies, which apparently communicate well with their people while being closed-mouthed to everyone else.

At the bottom of the list of large agencies are the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which seems to have an endless series of bad personnel news, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs ranked 18th out of 19 large agencies and scored the largest drop of any on that list. A VA spokeswoman said: “We realize we have more work to do. We are implementing key initiatives to ensure our leaders are of the highest caliber and continuously improve.”

DHS had a similar response, with a spokeswoman saying: “DHS is focused on continuing to improve employee engagement through enhanced communication and training, employee recognition and strengthening the skills of employees at every level. DHS is in the process of rolling out its Leader Development Framework, a systematic and strategic approach to developing leadership skills throughout the Department’s workforce.”

But House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said his panel “has routinely found that (DHS) mismanagement and a lack of real leadership has bred dissatisfaction throughout the ranks. . . . In order to improve workforce morale, greater attention needs to be placed on resolving basic management functions that any business must deal with, such as IT consolidation, better workforce training, increased financial oversight of component budgets and basic training for procurement and acquisition specialists.”

During a scary time of budget drops, pay freezes and staffing cuts, it’s no wonder federal employees “feel less empowered to do their jobs and are less satisfied with the way their senior leaders are handling their agencies,” the report said.

“Given the current environment,” it adds, “sustained attention to improving leadership is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

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

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