By Ed O'Keefe and Joe Davidson
Monday, July 12, 2010; A13
In these times of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, federal workers are continuing a trend of job satisfaction, giving the Obama administration good marks for its leadership of agencies though remaining skeptical on a key point: that career advancement in the government is based on merit.
And in an ironic turn, the Office of Management and Budget, which is helping to lead the administration's pledge to reinvigorate the federal workforce, lost ground among its own employees on issues of leadership and job satisfaction.
The employee opinions are in the largest-ever survey of the federal workforce, and the first to be conducted by the Obama administration.
Three-quarters of respondents said they feel a sense of personal accomplishment, 8 in 10 like the work they do, and more than 90 percent think it is important. In addition, two-thirds of respondents said they're satisfied with their pay.
"Like everybody who has a job right now, they're grateful for it," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, which conducted the survey. OPM has conducted the review every other year since 2002 and plans to do so annually from now on.
Its findings, set for release Monday, include responses from a little more than half of the 500,000 workers who received copies of the survey in February and March.
"I think it just shows that people appreciate their service and they're fortunate to have good employment," Berry added.
More than half of respondents, 56 percent, said they have a high level of respect for agency leadership, a four-point climb from 2008. Leaders also scored higher for motivating their staffs and communicating an agency's mission. And more than two-thirds said their performance is fairly evaluated.
But employees also see pitfalls.
Just over one-third of workers said they think promotions are based on merit. And though most are satisfied with their pay, they are less happy with some benefits, especially child-care and elder-care options. In addition, things might be heading south among workers. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they're able to cooperate with colleagues to complete their job, but the question scored nine points lower than two years ago.
OMB's survey results were especially surprising.
The survey asked workers to rate supervisors, their agency's overall improvement, job training opportunities and job satisfaction in order to measure progress government-wide and at 82 agencies. OMB fell in each area.
It experienced the largest drop in any category -- 12 points -- in the leadership index and also fell furthest on questions of job satisfaction. OMB plunged to second to last in the leadership rankings, though it remained within the top third in the other categories.
The results may affect the broader legacy of OMB Director Peter Orszag, who previously announced his departure and will step down soon. Orszag has been a strong federal workplace advocate, pushing agencies to fix their hiring practices and supporting federal compensation against conservative attacks.
"This has been an extraordinarily productive and successful time for the organization -- and not surprisingly, a stressful time as well," said Kenneth Baer, OMB communications director. "Our most important asset is the men and women who work at OMB, so we take these results and the other feedback we get from OMB employees very seriously. We have already been taking steps to address some of the concerns raised in the survey and will continue to do so in the months ahead."
With staffers putting in long hours on two budgets and the massive health insurance and economic recovery measures, "OMB is a tough place to work," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. "It's always been a tough place to work. The challenges are substantial. Every administration comes in and has a new approach to management and budget issues, and OMB is the place where it gets played out. It can be a pressure cooker."
Yet all of that begs the question, she added, of "what the heck is going on there."
Finding answers to that for OMB and other agencies is the point of the survey. Formerly known as the Federal Human Capital Survey, it has been renamed the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
"The hope is that we'll give managers more immediate feedback that they can use to keep in touch with what's going on in their agencies," Berry said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission led agencies in all four categories, as it did in 2008. Like two years ago, the Broadcasting Board of Governors was last in all categories, but also was among the most improved in each category.
The Federal Communications Commission leads the list of most-improved agencies, placing first in three of four categories and tying for second place in the fourth. The agency was by far the most improved on questions of agency leadership, climbing 10 points between 2008 and 2010, twice as much as the next agency in that category.
Ana Curtis, FCC local president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said, "It's no surprise we improved so much, because we were so bad."
She credited a more open and communicative leadership style under the Obama administration with helping to turn things around. An agency blog where employees make workplace suggestions is one improvement, Curtis said.
But that doesn't mean everything is great. In some cases, agency action doesn't live up to its public relations face, according to Curtis. FCC managers say they support telework for staff members, for example, but they still treat it "like it's a privilege" for the elite, she said.
The survey included questions about telework for the first time, as the Obama administration encourages agencies to allow flexible work arrangements. Government-wide, 10 percent of respondents telework at least one day per week, and 12 percent do so less frequently. An additional 36 percent cannot telework because they must be physically present to do their job (including security officers and park rangers). Twelve percent said they choose not to telework.
The data will be reviewed by agency managers, lawmakers and outside experts as they try to spot trends or troubled agencies.
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the survey "offers valuable insight on the federal workforce" and said his panel will carefully monitor how agencies use the results.
The Partnership for Public Service uses OPM's data for its annual "Best Places to Work" review, which is due in September.
Full results will be available Monday at http://fedview.opm.gov.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.