The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Feds’ best places to work might not be so good for long

The best places to work in the federal government won’t be very good very long if President Trump gets his budget.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) issued that warning in his opening statement to a House hearing last week. The Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee session was called to explore the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report.

Generally, federal agencies were improving under the Obama administration.

But will that last under Trump?

“The administration’s plans for the civil service constitute a significant threat,” said Connolly, the ranking Democrat on the government operations subcommittee. “Less than half of federal employees feel they have sufficient resources to do their jobs, and … the president’s FY2018 budget request would cut those resources significantly.”

While a few agencies would benefit under Trump’s proposal, it would cut domestic discretionary spending by $54 billion and probably lead to personnel cuts through layoffs and furloughs. Previously, he largely froze federal hiring.

Although Trump has yet to reach his 100th day in office, the administration and congressional Republicans “already have a shameful record of attacking our federal workforce,” Connolly said. “The president’s hiring freeze, the latest in a series of assaults on federal employees, poses a serious threat to the criticality of the federal mission.  An across-the-board federal hiring freeze is a mindless way to manage.  It lacks any flexibility to quickly react and adapt to future challenges we may not be able to anticipate today, something I thought was critical to running a large enterprise.”

The proposed budget has caused widespread anxiety among federal employees whose work and livelihood are at stake. Particularly worried are those at 19 small agencies that Trump would eliminate. Many others would suffer significant reductions, up to the 31 percent budget cut planned for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The anxiety is fueled by uncertainty, said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. It publishes the “Best Places” reports, which are based on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.

“Uncertainty is the most corrosive of all in terms of diminishing, you know, capability,” he said. “And this is true right now with respect to budget, it’s true with respect to the hiring freeze …. those are not the effective ways to get best value for the American people, in my view.”

Trump’s budget has been widely rebuked, so there’s a good chance what emerges from Congress will differ from his plans. That only adds to the uncertainty.

But money isn’t the only issue.

Poor leadership in federal agencies is a big problem.

Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) focused on the Surface Transportation Board, a small operation overseeing railroad rate and service issues. It suffered the largest decline in employee engagement scores of any agency, by far, in last year’s survey — taken well before Trump’s hiring freeze and budget proposal.

His interrogation of the board’s managing director, Lee Gardner, revealed a management ignorant about its staff.

Meadows: “So help me explain why we went backwards …”

Gardner: “We were very surprised.”

Wrong answer.

Surprised means supervisors are out of touch with staffers. With just 128 employees, getting to know what they think about their workplace shouldn’t be too hard.

Meadows: “That concerns me even more … If you’re surprised by the results, it shows that we have a lack of understanding of the rank‑and‑file … Why would you be surprised?”

Gardner, citing previous good survey results: “I felt and I think most of the management at the agency felt that we were continuing to do a good job with engagement …. I think we are fair.  I think, as a leader at the agency, I think we do a good job.”

Wrong answer.

Meadows, citing the board’s 6.9 percent drop in its leadership fairness rating: “So are you surprised by that, that they think that leadership is not fair, that management is not fair?”

Garnder: “I am surprised at that, because I think we are fair.  I think, as a leader at the agency, I think we do a good job.”

Meadows: “ … It doesn’t matter what you think …. It matters what the rank‑and‑file thinks. And that’s the whole reason why you have an employee survey … if you’re thinking that everything is kumbaya, I mean, how do we fix the problem?”

Gardner admitted he and the other managers didn’t know they had a problem until the survey results were released.

They were clueless.

Meadows: “So, this would indicate that there’s a problem within your leadership ranks of not actually responding appropriately to the rank‑and‑file. Would you agree with that?”

Gardner: “I would.  I would …. We’ve asked employees for suggestions on ways that we could improve …”

Meadows: “How many have you implemented?”

Gardner: “Well, we haven’t implemented any yet.”

Wrong answer.

Meadows: “Therein is the problem, Mr. Gardner.  When you get information from rank‑and‑file employees and you do nothing with it, there is a problem. Then they think that their opinion doesn’t matter.”

Meadows gave Gardner 45 days to submit a report on improving employee morale. The chairman said he and Connolly might visit the transportation board and talk “with some of your rank‑and‑file employees and maybe hear firsthand” about their issues.

That basic management approach — communicating with staff — apparently would be a novel idea for Gardner and the board’s other bosses.

Read more:

[Agencies prepare for federal employee layoffs, furloughs]

[Overshadowed executive order sets stage for threatened federal programs, workforce. Layoffs loom.]

[Anxiety, fear, uncertainty mark federal employees awaiting Trump’s budget]

[Report ranks best and worst agencies for federal employees]