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Opinion Dissatisfied with government? Well, federal workers are pretty unhappy, too.

FBI employees and guests attend the installation ceremony for FBI Director Christopher A. Wray at the bureau's headquarters on Sept. 28, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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In the aftermath of the pandemic and their required return to the office, federal employees are more dissatisfied than ever with their jobs, according to the annual survey published by the Partnership for Public Service in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group.

“The 2021 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement and satisfaction score is 64.5 out of 100, representing a 4.5-point decrease from 2020,” the Partnership wrote in a statement. “The sizable drop in employee engagement and satisfaction came during President Joe Biden’s first year in office, during which the administration saw only 55% of its nominations requiring Senate confirmation fully confirmed.”

The numbers cannot be explained by overall dissatisfaction in the American workplace. The Partnership noted that “data provided by employee research firm Mercer found the 2021 private sector employee engagement and satisfaction score to be 79.1 out of 100 among its client survey participants, 14.6 points higher than the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government index.”

One might have expected that, following the departure of a know-nothing president hostile to government and the arrival of a president with more government experience than any chief executive in recent memory, there would be an uptick in satisfaction among government workers. After all, Biden showered federal workers with praise upon taking office and reversed anti-civil-service policies that his predecessor instituted. But more fundamental problems are at work here that cannot be cured with a president who appreciates federal workers.

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As a preliminary matter, Americans should understand that the federal government cannot serve the public without motivated employees willing to remain in government. Accumulated experience and institutional knowledge are valuable commodities that are lost with employee churn. Given that the workforce is already aging, it should be particularly concerning that, as the Partnership noted, federal workers “aged 30 to 39 had the lowest employee engagement and satisfaction score of any age group.” Unless the federal government can attract and retain high-skilled workers, performance will deteriorate and the quality of government services will decline.

There is no single explanation for the decline in government employee satisfaction. Uncertainly about returning to the office post-covid accounts for part of the problem. But the extraordinary number of political appointees plays a role as well. The Senate is unable to promptly confirm these nominees, leaving gaping holes in the leadership of departments and agencies.

Another significant factor in employee dissatisfaction is pay. A 5.8-point drop in satisfaction with pay was the largest decline since 2020 among all factors measured (e.g., work-life balance, leadership), no doubt a function of the minimal 1 percent pay increase. The report found that pay and lack of innovation “were the only workplace categories where scores dropped at large, midsize, and small agencies.”

At bottom, employee satisfaction requires responsive, competent leaders who focus not simply on the policy initiatives but on the management of their own workforce. The survey found that workers gave effective leadership a score of 68 out of 100. They also gave “higher scores for effective leadership at the small and midsize agencies than they did for those at the large agencies.” Improving internal communication, empowering lower-level employees and increasing levels of “interpersonal trust” are critical to improving these scores.

Moreover, when employees don’t believe their good performance matters, satisfaction plummets. This year’s survey found that the score for employee’s belief that “their good work through awards and advancement stood at just 59.8, down slightly from 2020.”

Ultimately, leaders need to be held accountable for their performance as managers. If the president truly prioritizes federal employees, he would press his administration to identify the worst workplaces and require the department or agency head to devise a plan for improvement. Unless and until department and agency heads understand that their tenure depends in part on their employees’ satisfaction, improvement is unlikely.

Looking at the scores for the largest agencies and departments, the three worst-rated workplaces are the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the Social Security Administration. Among those, the Justice Department saw an eight-point drop, one of the largest of any entity in this category. That seems like the perfect place to start addressing employee satisfaction.