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Survey shows federal workers’ resilience

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This has been a rough period for federal employees, but they don’t show it.

They were the first to suffer under the government’s effort to balance its books with a two-year pay freeze imposed on them in January. The White House wants them to pay more for their retirement benefits, and they’ve yet to see where expected budget cuts will fall. And repeated threats of government shutdowns can’t be good for morale.

Yet, a massive survey of federal workers released Thursday shows they are a resilient lot. Like the child’s bop bag, they get hit and bounce right back.

About 266,000 employees, more than the population of many cities, participated in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Among its broad range of issues, three questions stand out for John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on the federal workplace.

He suggested looking at how satisfied employees are with their jobs, how satisfied they are with their agencies and whether they would recommend their organizations as good places to work. Those survey questions have produced consistently positive responses, and in some cases the percentage of positive replies has improved since 2008.

“It shows a remarkably good ability to focus on getting the job done and to in some way ignore that extraneous stuff” like proposals to cut retiree benefits, Palguta said. That’s particularly true because the survey was done in April and May. Talk of a government shutdown was tense into the second week of April, and the uncertainty for federal workers was great. The Partnership, which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post, uses raw data from the survey to produce the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” list.

On the three key questions identified by Palguta, he noted that 70.7 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their jobs, 62.3 percent said they were satisfied with their agencies and 68.9 percent said they would recommend their organization as a place to work.

Certainly, none of those percentages would rate an A or even a B in schoolrooms, but given the negative climate for federal workers, administration officials “really were worried that they were going to see a big drop-off,” but that did not happen, Palguta said.

Other questions indicated morale is high even as the federal workforce is used as a dart board by congressional Republicans: 92 percent said they think the work they do is important, 85 percent like the work they do and 82 percent said the quality of work done in their units is high.

One area that cries out for improvement every year is performance management. “Holding poor performers accountable and making clear that promotions and raises are based on merit and performance” needs more work, said Jonathan Foley, planning and policy analysis director for the Office of Personnel Management.

Only 35 percent said promotions are based on merit and “differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way.” Forty-seven percent do not believe pay raises are linked to performance. Yet 69.7 percent said “my performance appraisal is a fair reflection of my performance.”

In the introduction to the survey, OPM Director John Berry said “agencies must remain focused on performance management, especially in dealing with poor performers and providing their employees with sufficient resources to get their job done. Performance management continues to persist as a problem area across government.”

Uncle Sam has struggled with getting a good fix on managing performance for years. The most recent major attempt was the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System. It was a major bust, torpedoed by employees who didn’t trust it.

Sam’s search for a new performance management system continues in the deficit reduction plan President Obama offered this week. It says the government needs “a modernized personnel system” to “address poor performers consistently and fairly, develop staff, and motivate better performance using the best evidence-based public and private sector practices.”

Performance management also was on the agenda at the labor-management forum meeting Wednesday, where high-level government officials and employee-organization leaders participated in a discussion filled with business school declarations such as “articulate a high-performance culture,” “create a culture of engagement” and “align employee performance management with organizational performance management.”

It’s hard to know how that jargon will change life in office cubicles, but it’s clear that performance management is a very active issue. One union leader, Brian DeWyngaert, the American Federation of Government Employees’ chief of staff, welcomed the discussion. The framework offered at the forum presented a better balance between managing individual performance and organizational performance, rather than looking primarily at individuals, which, he said, generally has been the case.

“We feel it’s a potentially big step forward,” DeWyngaert said.

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