The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal employees are not happy. These agencies are especially troubled.

The Department of Homeland Security continues to rank at the bottom for employee engagement. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)
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The latest rankings for Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, released on Wednesday, raise troubling issues for the Biden administration and those federal agencies whose reputations are falling fast.

Across the government, the overall drop of more than 4 points in employee engagement, an estimate of worker morale, is a disturbing indication that significant improvement is needed at agencies large and small. Almost two-thirds of the agencies saw their scores drop or stay flat, which is not a good sign. Employee engagement scores are the key element in the annual ratings produced by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group.

One agency that consistently ranks at the bottom, including this year, is the Department of Homeland Security. For 10 straight years, it has been last among 17 large agencies. The Federal Trade Commission managed to fall from second place in 2020 to 22nd among two dozen midsize agencies, with top leadership the suspected culprit. Within the Social Security Administration, its Office of the Inspector General fell sharply and resides last among more than 430 agency subcomponents. The National Labor Relations Board remained at the bottom of its midsize category, despite a noteworthy increase in its score.

“This is not about happy employees,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership. “We are looking at whether they are, frankly, more productive, whether they are actually producing better outcomes for the public. And so, this really matters.”

The ratings matter, because the reputations of agencies and their leaders, including President Biden, are at stake. They matter because higher employee engagement and morale leads to a better customer experience. Ultimately, the rankings relate to the quality of service the federal government provides taxpayers.

Uncertainty about returning to the office, after working at home for many federal workers during the pandemic, could have contributed to the poor ratings. Yet the quality and availability of leadership always is a key issue. The engagement score is calculated from three questions in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey by the Office of Personnel Management: Would you recommend your agency as a good place to work? How satisfied are you with your job? How satisfied are you with your organization?

Federal employee satisfaction and engagement show sharp decline

“The sizable drop in employee engagement and satisfaction came during President Biden’s first year in office, during which the administration saw only 55% of its nominations requiring Senate confirmation fully confirmed,” the Partnership said. “The leadership vacancy problem presents a major challenge for the administration, which has described federal employees as the ‘backbone of our government’ and committed in the President’s Management Agenda to ‘make every federal job a good job, where all employees are engaged, supported, heard and empowered.’”

Here is a closer look at a few agencies where that pledge needs major work.

With a decade in the basement, DHS seems hopeless. Stier has long emphasized the importance of leaders, and DHS has had plenty of them, which is probably a big part of the problem. During its 10 years at the bottom, the agency has had 11 secretaries, either confirmed or acting. Some of them presumably are good leaders, but the turnover has not been good for the workplace. To improve its performance, DHS said it is holding awards ceremonies, producing a weekly staff newsletter, conducting monthly senior leadership forums and improving procedures to reduce paperwork in favor of more direct service to customers.

The NLRB demonstrated notable improvement from its score of under 55 in 2020 to nearly 61 in 2021. Nonetheless, it remained tied with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for last place in its category. “The single most important issue for improving morale at the NLRB is proper funding,” NLRB press secretary Kayla Blado said in an email.

“Because we’ve been given the same congressional appropriation” of $274 million “for nine consecutive years, causing what is effectively a 25% budget cut, our dedicated staff are forced to do much more with much less. While our union election petitions are skyrocketing and unfair labor practice charges are also on the rise, we’ve lost 50% of our field staff in the last two decades. Our staff around the country are feeling this crunch, and an appropriation that seriously takes our resource issues into account will help the hardworking people at the NLRB fulfill our important mission,” Blado continued.

The Social Security inspector general plays an important investigative role. That office needs to investigate its steep engagement score fall from above 56 in 2020 to slightly above 33 in 2021. Rebecca Rose, an agency spokeswoman, said those results “do not reflect all efforts we have undertaken to address employee morale” since the workforce was surveyed in late 2021, including the establishment of a full-time organizational health director and “the implementation of maximum workplace flexibilities during covid and for the steps we are taking to make the pilot permanent.”

The FTC had a nosedive of 24 points in a remarkable achievement under the leadership of chair Lina Khan. In three of four leadership metrics, the agency ranked no better than 18 out of 23 agencies. For senior leaders, a group that includes Khan, the rating was even lower at 22. That contrasts sharply with the views of workers on their immediate FTC supervisors. Those managers closest to the workers received a high ranking of 2 out of 23 agencies. FTC workers also are very unhappy with their pay and the performance of the agency. An agency statement said Khan has “enormous respect” for FTC workers and linked the poor showing to “a period of considerable change.”

Improvement can be difficult, too, but it happens with good managers. Stier emphasized that leadership, more than anything else, drives employee engagement ratings. “Bad management,” he said, “creates a morale problem.”

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