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Morale for federal workers is (surprise!) on the upswing

Workers build the inaugural platform for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump promised a hiring freeze among federal workers and repeatedly referred to Washington as the "swamp" he wants to drain. At one point during the campaign he said the Department of Education "can be largely eliminated" and named a man to run the Energy Department who once vowed to abolish it. His transition team has asked officials at the Department of Energy which employees have been involved in climate meetings, a request agency officials rejected.

Such comments and actions likely aren't going to do much to boost the morale of federal workers. But as Trump comes into the job next month, he will inherit a federal workforce whose engagement is finally on the upswing, still well below its 2010 high but improved for the second year running.

On Thursday, Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on improving the effectiveness of the federal government, released its 2016 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, which annually ranks the best and worst federal agencies by employee engagement and shares broad trends about how they feel about their jobs. The report shows a 1.3 point rise in worker morale compared to 2015, for a score of 59.4 of 100.

That's still well below its best score of 65 in 2010, but represents the second year in a row of improved scores. Seventy-two percent of agencies boosted their scores in 2016, compared with 70 percent in 2015, 43 percent in 2014 and just 24 percent in 2013.

Those scores still have plenty of room for improvement -- not only in comparison to past numbers for the federal workforce, but with the private sector. The partnership compares its engagement scores to ones from the survey research organization Sirota, which finds that private sector workers' engagement is nearly 18 points higher, or a 77.1 of 100.

"The gauntlet we're putting down is the Trump administration ought to take on the task of meeting or exceeding the private sector benchmark," says Max Stier, the Partnership's president and CEO. For an administration that prides itself on its business chops, it seems a fair bar to set.

This year's report again found that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration led all of the large agencies' scores, with the Department of Commerce, the Intelligence Community, the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services rounding out the top five. The worst-performing large agency was again the Department of Homeland Security. The National Endowment of the Arts, at 85.9, had the highest score of any agency, whatever the size, while the Federal Election Commission had the lowest, with an index score of only 28.4.

DHS tackles endless morale problems with seemingly endless studies

In addition to measuring which agencies fare better or worse from year to year, the report examines how federal agencies score in 10 categories. And of all the ones it measures -- what federal workers think of their work-life balance, their pay, their training and the like -- the aspect of their jobs that was most influential in improving engagement was effective leadership.

To gauge that, the Partnership measures how empowered people feel in their jobs, whether they feel their job environment is fair, what they think of their senior leaders and their direct supervisors. Every year since the rankings were launched in 2003, it's been the biggest motivating force for employees. When an agency is dropping, Stier says, it's because they have ineffective people at the top. "And when they go up, you know they’ve got good leadership."

Despite its influence, federal workers give their bosses low marks in this regard. It comes in ninth among the 10 categories, even after seeing the biggest improvement in its score last year. The good news, Stier says, is that it's also one of the things a new administration has the control to influence the most if they choose to.

Report ranks best and worst agencies for federal employees

But ramping up the engagement scores to private-sector levels won't be easy, no matter who's in charge. The difficulty of managing a federal workforce and keeping people engaged is more difficult for several reasons, Stier says. Unlike in a business, there's very little real-time data on performance, and that will always be an issue since government's goal is the public good, rather than financial returns. Leaders in federal agencies often stay in jobs for short periods. And Congress "does not operate as an effective fiduciary for the executive branch," he says. "No private sector business could manage their situation effectively without long-term budgeting."

Still, the Partnership's report at least offers data on one metric: How engaged workers are in their jobs. And with a new administration coming in, Stier says, "this is their benchmark now. Walking in, they own this number. [It will] tell them whether they've been successful leaders or not."

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