Margaret Weichert, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, speaks at the 2018 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government program last week. (Partnership for Public Service)
Columnist

Margaret Weichert was particularly animated at the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2018 launch just after she said, “There is so much to celebrate here. … Engagement is rising in the federal workforce.”

She paused, looked at her audience in the Ronald Reagan Building, raised her arms for emphasis and said, “That probably didn’t jump out at you, right? But it’s risen in the last two years.”

That didn’t jump out at the assembled federal employees and good-government advocates because the data presented by the report from Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group tell a different story of federal morale under President Trump.

The boldface headline on the Partnership’s news release is clear: “2018 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings Show a Decline in Employee Engagement Across Majority of Federal Agencies.”

Weichert begs to differ. She is Trump’s deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management. Since her talk at Wednesday’s Best Places breakfast launch, she’s gotten elbow-deep into the data.

She is not a happy number-cruncher.

Weichert seemed particularly bothered by this news release comment from Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service’s president and chief executive: “Our government is handicapped by a lack of leadership that has led to static or declining employee engagement.”

Sitting across a conference table in Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, Weichert was peeved: “Throwing something out saying this is a leadership problem — without data that empirically shows me that, and most especially because the leaders who are most impactful to that question are career civil servants who are hard-working supervisors — it frankly is discouraging. That kind of generalization and oversimplification might actually hurt the very people that they ostensibly are trying to help: the employees. And that is the reason I have so much energy on this topic.”

Does Best Places place too much emphasis on the relationship of leadership to engagement without data demonstrating that correlation?

“Our answer is no,” Stier said. “Of the 10 workplace categories that we measure, effective leadership has been found to have the largest influence on employee engagement since the rankings were first launched in 2003. And to better understand effective leadership, we broke it into four subcategories — senior leaders, empowerment, fairness and supervisors. In our past analysis of the data, we’ve consistently seen that senior leaders are the most important component of effective leadership.”

Following the breakfast, @Weichert45 tweeted: “Misleading stats on # of agencies (esp small agencies) obscure hard work by agencies.”

With that and during an interview with the Federal Insider, Weichert laid out her objections to the findings in the report, which is based on OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership has annually issued the influential Best Places report to great anticipation from across government. Agency heads sing their praises when their organizations do well and solemnly promise to do better when they don’t.

Never in my decade of covering the report have I heard any administration official question its methodology.

But now comes Weichert. She is a proud, 14-patent-holding data geek. While Trump casts feds as swamp-dwellers, seeks to freeze their pay, cut their retirement and disembowel their labor organizations, she speaks with pride, energy and enthusiasm about the federal workforce. But talk isn’t policy, and make no mistake who is the boss.

Her tweet concerns the possibility that basing engagement increases or decreases on the number of agencies can provide a distorted picture. A larger number of small agencies could fall in the rankings, while a smaller number of larger agencies that employee more people in total could rise.

So, DOD [Department of Defense] improving by two points, or the Secret Service improving by 11 points,” she said about this year’s results, “has a much bigger impact on many more people.”

Stier acknowledges that but notes the Partnership has long used this methodology. That includes last year, when it showed increasing employee engagement. No one from the Trump administration complained about that.

“We also report on the government-wide score because we think that offering both measures provide a better picture of what is happening than just one,” Stier said. “In the end, we believe both measures should be examined in order to get the full picture of federal employee engagement across government. … Reporting on the direction of the various subcomponents of government matters because that is the unit in which people associate and where you can hold leaders accountable.”

The government-wide score is another issue with Weichert. Her tweet included a graph that appears to show the federal employee engagement score rose from 61.5 last year to 62.2 this year.”

But this year’s score is more complicated because the Department of Veterans Affairs conducted its own canvass instead of participating in the all-agency viewpoint survey.

“To ensure that we would have an apples to apples comparison between 2018 and 2017, we removed the VA data from our original 2017 government-wide employee engagement score,” Stier explained in a blog post. “As a result, this year’s government-wide Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 62.2 represents a 0.6-point decline from the modified 2017 government-wide score that no longer includes the VA.”

While Weichert suggested Stier appears partisan, an appearance he studiously avoids, he pointed out that “we’ve seen … bigger drops in the Obama administration, we’ve seen lower scores during the Obama administration.”

“At the end of the day,” Stier said, he believes Weichert and the Partnership are aligned in seeking “how to create environments in the government that allows mission driven people to better achieve that mission. And that’s when you get more and more engaged employees.”

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