How bad is federal employee morale?

The good news tells the story.

In the 2014 government-wide survey of federal employees, positive responses dropped for 35 questions and increased for just 10 compared with 2013.

As bad as that is, it’s a marked improvement compared with the three-year trend in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. From 2011 to 2014, positive responses dropped on 64 questions and increased for none.

These numbers show the tough problem the Obama administration faces as it attempts to improve employee engagement and morale. The trend might be moving in the right direction, but going from appalling to alarming is no comfort.

Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), is trying to reverse this long-standing problem with a series of steps he and others outlined in a December directive to federal agencies.

“The Federal workforce is the crucial driver of mission success,” the memo says. “We believe that employee engagement is a leading indicator of performance and should be a focus for all levels of an agency — from the front line employee to the agency head. Employee engagement is not only a Human Resources function, but a cross-cutting leadership effort that is directly tied to mission success.”

The subject line, “Strengthening Employee Engagement and Organizational Performance,” sounds as interesting as a chapter in a boring public administration textbook. It also doesn’t indicate how bad surveys and interviews say morale really is.

Yet Donovan’s directive has the potential to jump-start ongoing and sometimes faltering efforts to improve employee morale and government service. In addition to Donovan, it was issued by Beth Cobert, deputy OMB director for management; Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management; and Meg McLaughlin, deputy director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

It’s much too early to know if this will be just another forgotten personnel effort or an initiative that results in real change. History might lead skeptics to bet on the former. But two things about this effort have promise and bear watching — the level of leadership accountability and a promise “to further institutionalize a focus on improving employee engagement and mission performance.”

The memo directs each executive branch agency to designate, by Jan. 23, a senior official who is “responsible for ensuring the agency’s commitment to improving employee engagement and mission performance.” By Jan. 31, each deputy secretary is to have “reviewed progress on employee engagement.”

As an ongoing duty, deputy secretaries are responsible for ensuring that Senior Executive Service performance plans “include some measurable component” related to improved employee engagement.

The incentive for the often transient political leadership in agencies is the drumbeat from the very top to make sure morale and government service improve on their watch.

“This has been a very big focus across the administration,” Cobert said during an interview. “It is something we talk about at virtually every PMC (President’s Management Council) meeting. It is something the president talks about and stresses at cabinet meetings. I know this is something the most senior levels care about.”

Labor leaders like the administration’s initiative, but William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, thinks OMB’s “data wonks” give too much attention to metrics. He said the administration’s goal of raising something called the “engagement index” from 63 percent in 2014 to 67 percent in 2016 means little to workers and taxpayers.

“Our focus needs to be on doing a better job of engaging employees,” he added, “and I would argue that the engagement scores will take care of themselves.”

He pointed to improved employee engagement at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. The shipyard commander, Capt. William Greene, said major projects are being completed on time and on budget despite a hiring freeze and cuts in facilities funding.

“Since 2009, the shipyard has led a ground-breaking initiative to work on values, beliefs, behaviors, and individual attitudes as the driving force behind substantial performance improvement,” he wrote in The Periscope, a shipyard publication. Portsmouth calls its statement of values, beliefs and behaviors a “Declaration of Excellence.”

Yet despite the “more with less” mantra, excellence can fall victim to budget cuts that bust even dedicated morale-boosting efforts.

Sharyn Phillips, an Internal Revenue Service lawyer and a National Treasury Employees Union chief steward in Manhattan, praised Commissioner John Koskinen for “bringing the conversation with employees to a meaningful level. He has held town hall meetings with bargaining unit employees across the country. He has allowed employee suggestions to be given directly to him through an e-mail address he set up for this purpose and has properly given recognition to those employees when their suggestions have been implemented.

“However, employee morale is still abysmal,” she added by e-mail. “This is in large part because of the lack of proper funding for the IRS in the budget just enacted by Congress. Employees are being asked to do more and more, but without proper funding, that is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish. The workforce has been depleted. The Agency can barely perform its mission and frustration among employees is running high.”

Federal employee frustration is real and widespread. Donovan, Cobert, Archuleta and McLaughlin know it will take more than their memo to fix it.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.