The change in administrations and a series of proposals, from workforce reductions to reorganizing and streamlining government, has created uncertainty for federal employees.
To get some perspective on how employees view the current situation, my organization – the Partnership for Public Service – recently conducted an online survey of individuals who have participated in our leadership development and other programs.
While the 620 people who responded to the late April survey may not represent a statistically valid sample, the results reflect the views of career federal employees who work at more than 50 federal agencies.
About two-thirds of the respondents reported low morale, and the same percentage said the new administration has had a negative impact on the ability of their agencies to fulfill their missions.
Despite these concerns, about 77 percent of the respondents indicated they planned to stay at their agencies for the next year. The survey suggested that the desire to contribute to the missions of their agencies was an important factor in that decision.
There also were several prevalent themes related to what the employees want new political leaders to know about them. One was that “there are plenty of us who are competent and do good work,” and a second was, “we will work with you to make programs work better, so please use us as a resource.”
The Trump administration’s Cabinet secretaries should take heed of these findings, and engage, not ignore or write-off the federal workforce.
The Cabinet secretaries and other top political appointees can learn a great deal from career civil servants. In the past, career employees often have been excluded from key decisions out of concern that they may be loyal to the prior administration or not on board with the new president’s policies. This can impede cooperation, information sharing and agency effectiveness.
Political and career executives often go through a cycle of accommodation that, in most cases, eventually leads to teamwork and trust, but this takes time. The administration’s political appointees should seek to shorten this cycle by creating departmental and agency leadership teams comprising both political appointees and career executives.
In addition, top political leaders should hold meetings with a range of career executives and managers to inform them of their vision and priorities for the agency, and seek the advice of these individuals on a range of topics. Where do they see waste and inefficiency? What redundancies do they encounter? What are some simple process improvements they would like to implement?
Don’t stop with the easy ideas. Use these meetings to brainstorm about some big bets likely to yield even bigger dividends around improved performance and cost.
These types of interactions are common in well-run organizations. Whether it as Jack Welch at GE in the 1980s, Ursula Burns at Xerox or Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen after Hurricane Katrina, effective leaders always seek input from their employees.
Strong leaders also work to foster a culture of recognition, one that rewards high performers and encourages good work. In our survey, about half of the respondents reported that they are not rewarded when they do good work, a finding consistent with the government-wide employee survey conducted annually by the Office of Personnel Management.
To their credit, all of the administration’s Cabinet secretaries signed a letter praising the work of federal employees in honor of Public Service Recognition Week (May 7-13), and that’s a positive sign. Now it’s important that recognition of good work become part and parcel of life at agencies across the government.
Every year, the Partnership’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) highlight the exceptional achievements and results of career employees across our federal government.
The 2017 finalists were announced this week. Their accomplishments include creating the world’s largest and most influential repository of genetic sequence data; leading U.S. humanitarian relief efforts in war-torn Syria and parts of Iraq; designing innovative wheelchairs and other assistive technology equipment that has improved the mobility and quality of life for hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans; and creating an easy-to-use, online resource to help victims of identity theft quickly report the crime, stop additional fraudulent activity and begin the recovery process.
The federal employees involved in these accomplishments were so determined that nothing stood in their way. But you have to ask how much more would be possible if leaders across government were better connected to the workforce and if successes were recognized and rewarded more often.
A week to publicly recognize the good work of federal employees