Columnist

Move to freeze employees' pay, slash retirement benefits, sap their labor organizations and in significant ways upset their workplace’s mission, then mix those ingredients with nonstop revelations about an amoral boss, and you have a disastrous recipe for employee morale.

So, it’s little wonder that the 2018 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report shows a steep decline in federal employee engagement.

The report, released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and the management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, shows that engagement dropped at almost 60 percent of federal agencies while improving at just under 40 percent.

“This represents a stark contrast to the previous three years when more than 70 percent of federal organizations experienced gains in how employees viewed their jobs and workplace related issues,” according to the partnership. It began compiling the ratings in 2003. The 2018 report covers the first full year of ratings under the Trump administration and amounts to a sharp reproach of its management at most agencies.

Even more than key factors such as pay and the match between employee skills and agency mission, effective leadership is the prime driver of employee engagement.

We have a phenomenally mission-oriented workforce, and it’s a workforce that is not getting the leadership that it needs to perform at its best. … You can track the movement of the employee engagement score by the quality of leaders because it’s the leadership that is most, most relevant,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive.

That points directly at President Trump’s unprincipled, puerile leadership. On Tuesday, he threatened a government shutdown “if we don’t get what we want” regarding congressional appropriations for a border wall he had promised that Mexico would fund.

“I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” he said.

What kind of leader is that?

The Office of Personnel Management at first issued a defensive statement in reaction to the report, seemingly based on an alternative truth designed to reject Stier’s comment about many agencies being “handicapped by a lack of leadership.” After review by a wiser head, OPM had this reasonable response: “While it’s disappointing to see these results, we must redouble our efforts to engage and work collectively to solve problems and improve. The American people deserve a dedicated workforce that is focused on its mission, excellent customer service, and steadfast stewardship.”

Calling the Best Places report “the only report card we have on the executive branch and how it's performing,” Stier urged Congress to “use the data and ask the questions, have a hearing” to examine agencies showing substantial declines.

One of those agencies is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which suffered a 25.2-point drop in its score to rank as 26 out of 27 midsize agencies. Last year, it was tied as the seventh-highest-ranking agency in its category. The CFPB’s mission has been eviscerated by Trump. A Washington Post investigation this month found that “publicly announced enforcement actions by the bureau have dropped about 75 percent from [the] average in recent years, while consumer complaints have risen to new highs.” The agency’s new director, Kathy Kraninger, took office Tuesday. It had been led in an acting capacity by Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

OMB did not comment on the overall findings, but on its 0.4 percent drop, a statement from the agency promised to “strive to improve our work environment.”

CFPB had no comment on its ranking, but the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents staffers there, did.

“The Partnership for Public Service rightly points to a lack of leadership as a culprit, but from NTEU’s perspective, it is much worse …” said Tony Reardon, president of the union. “Federal employees chose a career of public service because they believe in what good, sensible government can do for the American people, and when senior management questions their commitment, introduces barriers, or fails to provide clear direction, it makes it that much harder to recruit and retain good employees and to maintain a workplace with high morale.”

As the bureau’s experience shows, upending an agency’s mission also can be a morale buster for feds. Consider the unfortunate case of the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Eight years ago, I wrote about this tiny agency, which among other things resolves charges of unfair labor practice between federal unions and management. The agency had been allowed to wither like an emaciated child under George W. Bush’s presidency. It rebounded under the Obama administration. With Trump, the wasting-away policy is again being employed. The agency has no general counsel, a position necessary to carry out critical functions. Two of its seven regional offices, where much of the work is done, were closed.

That’s another recipe for terrible employee morale. FLRA’s score sank 31 points, ranking it 27 out of 29 small agencies. From 2011 through 2017, its rank was no lower than its 12th place last year. In 2015, it was the third-highest-ranking small agency. It’s sad to see it fall so low.

FLRA did not respond to a request for comment.

“No one should be surprised that federal employees are feeling discouraged, oppressed, and disrespected,” J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. “The administration seems to be at war with its own workforce, trying every day to take away their rights, and reduce their pay, pensions, and healthcare. Whether it’s through legislation, executive action, or at the bargaining table, all federal employees get from this administration is a ruthless determination to inflict harm.”

Improving morale is much more than a feel-good operation. Engaged employees are better workers, providing better service.

“Best-in-class private-sector organizations understand that increased employee engagement leads to better performance and outcomes, and federal leaders need to follow suit,” Stier said. “Building a highly motivated and engaged workforce should be a top priority not only for the Trump administration but also the new Congress.”

Read more:

Survey finds feds devoted to mission but not happy with senior leaders

Despite Trump, federal employee morale improves under Trump

Report ranks best and worst agencies for federal employees