The United States Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Roughly two-thirds of federal managers say it's rare for government workers to be reassigned or dismissed for poor performance. The majority say they can't recruit the best employees. Little more than half say they want to become part of the senior executive ranks.

These dispiriting statistics were all part of a recent survey that highlighted the struggles faced by the federal government's leadership workforce.

"These are topics people have talked about but haven’t had as much hard data on," said David Lewis, a Vanderbilt professor who was the lead researcher for the survey. "It's clear the workforce is under stress."

Lewis said the purpose of the study was to capture the views of civil service leaders at a time when attention on government workers tends to focus solely on the latest scandal or crisis. Changes to HR policy in federal agencies are mostly reactive, following events that earn negative attention—the Veterans Affairs scandal led to efforts to make it easier to fire workers, for example, while the GSA scandal led to limits on training and travel for conferences.

To instead create well-planned, evidence-based approaches to improving the way the workforce as a whole is managed, the study authors posited, we would need better insight into federal leaders' personnel challenges. The study, conducted by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University in cooperation with Princeton University and the Volcker Alliance, surveyed 3,551 federal executives about the barriers they face to doing their jobs well and their longer-term career plans.

Perhaps the most startling finding was that 70 percent of respondents felt that underperforming non-managers were rarely or never dismissed or reassigned. And 64 percent felt action was rarely or never taken for underperforming managers, either.

[The huge gap between how federal workers and federal leaders see the workplace]

In addition, 42 percent of respondents said they were unable to recruit the best talent to jobs in the federal government (39 percent said they disagreed). "That was a surprise," Lewis said. "You expect some to have troubles, but [42 percent] was a high number." 

The survey revealed several of the big obstacles managers see as being in their way. More than half of the respondents said a lack of resources, inadequate career growth opportunities, rigid civil service rules and the inability to compete on salaries have contributed to their agency's struggles with maintaining a skilled workforce.

Also troubling was that only about a third of respondents said promotions were based solely on performance and ability. The results, however, varied widely by workplace—in one unnamed agency, as few as 8 percent of respondents said that was the chief factor. In another, a much higher 56 percent said promotions were based only on performance.

It wasn't all bad news. Far more federal executives said their agency's skills have improved during their careers there than those who said it had worsened. And despite some of the unsettling figures, 83 percent of respondents who are political appointees and 72 percent who are career executives agreed they would recommend a career in public service today.

Lewis says he hopes the survey will prompt a more holistic approach to fixing personnel issues within the federal government.   Simply responding to one-off scandals or complaints about individual problem areas, like fixing the dismissal hurdles at Veterans Affairs, can sometimes result in other problems, such as worsening recruiting and retention.

"What’s revealed in the results is a system with a wide enough set of problems that small solutions in response to crises is not going to solve," said Lewis, "and in some sense may exacerbate the problem."

Less than half of respondents said they think the federal government has a modern HR organization. And according to Lewis, "That's just not good enough." 

Read also:

How to cure federal workers' biggest workforce pains

What happened with the GSA in Vegas stymies federal workers

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.