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Democrats ask GAO to study ‘root causes’ of federal employees’ low morale


It’s well known that federal employee spirits are low, but how low?

Top Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and two of its subcommittees want the Government Accountability Office to find out. They have asked the GAO to study “trends in federal employee morale.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

It doesn’t take a scientific study to know that employee morale has fallen to a bad place. Nonetheless, if the GAO decides to do the study, it could provide valuable pointers on improving the current dismal situation.

“This GAO study is exactly what we need right now,” said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “There is little hope for the relentless political attacks on federal employees to stop without Congress fully understanding the impact these attacks have on federal employee morale.”

In a letter sent last week to the GAO, Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) wrote that low morale “may be compromising the federal government’s ability to serve the American people.”

Citing the recent three-year freeze on basic federal pay rates, unpaid furlough days for many workers and a partial government shutdown, the representatives began their letter with an understatement:

“The last few years have been challenging for federal employees.”

Labor and management welcomed the proposed study.

“We embrace any effort that seeks to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government,” said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association. “Low morale has a significant negative impact on keeping good workers and attracting the best and the brightest to federal service.”

The Office of Personnel Management “always welcomes GAO’s involvement,” said OPM Director Katherine Archuleta. Spokespeople for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, did not respond to requests for comment.

The GAO, an arm of Congress, has to decide if it will do the study.

“GAO has a process it goes through to determine whether we begin work and when, and that process can take a few weeks. No decisions have been made,” said Jennifer Ashley, a GAO spokeswoman.

Although employee morale problems have been demonstrated through the OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) and the Partnership for Public Service’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” a GAO study can go further than those reports.

As Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service president and chief executive, said, this is a “great request” that could provide data Congress could use to improve the federal workplace.

Congress and the administration also pay attention to the OPM and “Best Places” reports, but the requested GAO study would drill down into the reasons for poor morale and look at what could be done about it. The letter asked the GAO to examine seven questions:

“1. What have been recent trends in federal employee morale and engagement based on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) and other available data broken out by grade level, position, and other demographic attributes?

“2. To the extent that they can be determined, what are the possible root causes underlying the trends in federal employee morale and engagement?

“3. What has been the impact of federal employee morale and engagement on recruitment and retention, employee performance and productivity, and achievement of agency mission?

“4. How, if at all, are selected agencies acting on the results of their FEVS engagement measures, including incorporating key drivers of engagement into their daily management practices?

“5. To what extent is the Office of Personnel Management providing tools and other resources to help agencies improve employee engagement and do agencies find this assistance helpful?

“6. For agencies that have significantly improved employee engagement, what lessons have been learned, especially as they relate to improved individual and organizational performance?

“7. What efforts are being undertaken to implement the President’s fiscal year 2015 management initiative, and what are the initial results of those efforts?”

Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents federal employees, said the proposed study is a “terrific” idea. He hopes it would “get well below the surface” and show “the lack of investment in the federal workforce . . . that dramatically lowered morale.”

President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal recognizes the need for greater investment through increased training for a workforce that has not received much lately.

“We also want to invest in our federal workforce by developing government-wide enterprise training and resource exchanges,” said Frank Benenati, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman. “For example, the budget includes funding for the Office of Personnel Management to expand opportunities for the Senior Executive Service.”

Archuleta has been meeting with Cabinet secretaries to discuss employee engagement, and the OPM is providing agencies with data-driven tools designed to improve employee morale.

“I know the Cabinet secretaries are very, very engaged” she said. “I’m heartened. I know they are very serious about it.”

They need to be. Getting federal employee morale where it needs to be will be a long, hard task.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

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