New Survey Shows a Federal Workforce at Risk

By Paul C. Light
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, January 13, 2009; 6:26 PM

Washington received yet another confirmation about troubled government when the president's personnel office released its bi-annual survey of more than 210,000 of federal employees last week: The federal workforce is desperate for the leadership and resources to do their jobs.

The survey showed a workforce ready to follow President-elect Barack Obama's lead. Federal workers are mostly satisfied with pay and benefits, broadly committed to its work, and generally comfortable with the growing federal workload.

Federal workers also reported that they like their work, have the opportunity to improve their skills, and get a sense of personal accomplishment from their jobs. In a sentence, federal employees are committed to their missions and believe they make a difference.

Unfortunately, the survey also shows a workforce at risk. Federal employees report persistent shortages of the basic resources they need to maintain the highest level of performance. Barely half say they get the training they need to do their jobs, and even fewer say there are satisfied with the information they get from management on what's going on in their organization.

At the same time, federal employees are deeply concerned about the quality of their senior leadership. The 2008 survey did not ask about the Bush administration's political appointees; this was a survey by the president's personnel office, after all. But it did ask about senior leaders in general. The responses were hardly reassuring about the state of the leadership corps. Barely half said they had a high level of respect for their organization's senior leaders, and just 42 percent were satisfied with the policies and practices of those leaders.

The survey also revealed serious problems with accountability. Federal employees do not feel particularly engaged in their organization's decisions, and were highly dissatisfied with the lack of a clear relationship between their performance and pay and promotions. Just half said that they were satisfied with the recognition they receive, only 40 percent said creativity and innovation are rewarded in their workplace, 31 percent said that differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way, and just 26 percent said pay raises depend on how well they do their jobs. As for dealing with poor performance, only 30 percent said steps are taken to deal with poor performers who cannot or will not improve.

These findings are particularly troubling compared with the business employees surveyed as part of the 2008 study. Federal employees are much less likely than business employees to be satisfied with the information they receive from their management, their access to training, and their organization's performance as a whole. If the federal government wants to win its share of the nation's most talented young people, it needs to treat them better once on the job. It is not enough just to make the invitation to service more appealing; the service itself must be rewarding.

The survey provides an important glimpse of the federal workforce as the Obama team gets ready to take over. Federal employees clearly know that the performance appraisal process is broken. They also believe the federal government needs to do more to discipline poor performers. Sen. John McCain was right on target, it seems, when he called the civil service system a "no accountability" zone during the fall campaign.

Obama's new performance czar, Nancy Killefer, should put the federal personnel system at the top of her agenda as she searches for ways to streamline government and increase productivity. Killefer must also realize that federal employees cannot succeed without the resources and respect to do their jobs. The president's personnel office did not ask federal employees whether their organizations have enough staff to succeed, no doubt because the Bush administration did not want to know.

However, the inventory of recent agency breakdowns suggests that employee shortages are at the root of increasing delays and mistakes across the federal hierarchy. Even as the Obama team worries about the fallout from increasing the number of federal employees, there is ample reason to create at least 100,000 new front-line jobs immediately.

There is also obvious need for investment in technologies, information systems, and employee training. The federal government cannot faithfully execute the laws if it does not have the resources to do so. The 2008 survey asked many important questions, but missed the most basic question of all: All things considered, are federal employees encouraged and able to succeed? The answer appears to be no.

Paul C. Light is a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Affairs and author of A Government Ill Executed.

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