The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the Trump era, job satisfaction declines in the federal workforce

The Education Department, headed by Secretary Betsy DeVos, was among the federal agencies that saw employee satisfaction drop this year, according to a new survey. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Editor`s Note:

The headline and lead paragraph of this story have been updated to reflect that while morale has declined in the federal workforce under President Trump, it did not “tumble,” as previously stated, and to note more prominently that the overall decline was 0.6 percent.

Job satisfaction declined this year at a majority of federal agencies, a survey released Wednesday shows — a sign of failing morale and performance at a time when the Trump administration has issued pointed critiques of the bureaucracy and many of its missions.

After three years of steady improvement as the economy rebounded from the recession, the number of employees who would recommend their agency as a good place to work dropped at 60 percent of federal offices, the annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings found. Less than 40 percent of agencies improved their ratings on the scorecard of job satisfaction at federal workplaces, compared with more than 70 percent in the Obama administration’s final years and Trump’s first.

After hitting a four-year low in 2014 after the recession and pay freezes, scores began to improve across government. But the overall measure of employee satisfaction dipped this year by a little more than half a percentage point.

This is the 15th government-wide survey of Cabinet and intelligence agencies and 415 smaller departments by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group. It was conducted from April through June, at the same time the White House was taking steps to make it easier to fire federal workers and restrict the workplace role of their unions.

Those actions, cited as efforts to make the workforce more responsive and efficient, capped more than a year of growing acrimony between Trump officials and the federal bureaucracy they oversee and have dubbed the “deep state.”

The culture shift has unfolded as the administration seeks to reshape the government, shrinking it in line with conservative principles on regulation and the administration’s policy priorities on the environment, health care, education and other issues.

“It’s going to hurt a little to be told that we’re deregulating, [that] the economy is stronger and what you’ve been doing was destructive,” anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said of many federal workers who are getting used to “an agenda that’s no longer pro-regulation.”

“You’re measuring a swing and a change,” he said. “It can make you grumpy.”

But Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive, said the dispirited ranks at many agencies eventually could hurt the president, because contented employees tend to work harder and better. Trump’s relationship with federal workers has been marked by labor-management battles, vacancies from ongoing hiring freezes, high turnover among political appointees and changing missions.

“It’s a workforce that is not getting the leadership it needs to perform its best,” Stier said. “Employees believe their leaders are not listening to them.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Best Places survey shows some precipitous drops in the survey’s satisfaction ratings, which fall on a 100-point scale. For example, ratings of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created under President Barack Obama to enforce consumer laws and protect the public from abusive practices by financial firms, plunged 25 points. The drop-off came as Trump officials reined in its mission.

Just one-third of the employees at a small office at Health and Human Services that is fighting the country’s opioid crisis said they were happy in their jobs, a dive from half in 2017. Job satisfaction at the Export-Import Bank fell 18 points on the scale.

The Education Department, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency — agencies where staff levels have dropped amid controversial leadership and changing priorities — all saw their scores dive, as did the Agriculture Department. Employees gave the EPA’s senior leaders a score of 38 out of 100, a 7-point decline from last year.

Job satisfaction was also down at three small agencies that deal with the rights of federal employees.

“Mr. Trump’s war on the hardworking public servants that keep our country safe and running is felt at nearly every level of our civil service, from emboldened managers making it harder for our members to do their jobs, to his war on rights in the workplace,” J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers, said in a statement. “It takes a toll on the worker and on employee morale.”

Several federal officials acknowledged that their agency’s falling scores did not come as a surprise, since Trump has made good on his vow to shake up government.

John Czwartacki, chief communications officer at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has seen an exodus of career employees, said that “this has been a tumultuous years of great change.” He called the employees “one of our most important stakeholders and their happiness is of utmost importance. The good news here is that we only have one way to go — and that’s up.”

Although the survey did not directly ask employees their opinions of Trump’s policies, the poor results reflect a lack of confidence in their agency’s leadership, Stier said.

This year’s rankings do not include a year-to-year comparison for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has struggled with turnover and political infighting in its top ranks. The agency did its own survey that measures feedback differently from the Best Places one.

The government had bright spots this year. The Defense Department’s central offices were the most improved large department, edging up 2.1 points over last year to a satisfaction rating of 63.2 percent — probably a reflection of Secretary Jim Mattis’s leadership, Stier said.

The Small Business Administration, led by pro-wrestling executive Linda McMahon, saw its score improve by 2.6 points, to 62 percent.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, with steadily improving scores over six years, now ranks third-highest in job satisfaction among midsize agencies. The top-rankedNational Aeronautics and Space Administration held its spot among large agencies, with 81 percent of its workforce reporting satisfaction with their leaders, supervisors and general work experience.

But the drop in employee satisfaction poses challenges for the president as he runs for reelection in 2020 on curbing illegal immigration, a more business-friendly government, tariffs and other policies.

Employee job satisfaction is “a very strong indicator of performance,” Stier said.

The rankings historically have been a road map for Cabinet secretaries and their deputies to assess the performance of managers, the treatment of whistleblowers, chances for advancement, work-life balance, recognition for good work and other metrics. It’s a rich window into how employees view their jobs, leaders and the work environment

The percentage of employees who responded to the survey fell to 40.6 percent, close to five percentage points down from last year. The drop came even though all federal workers were asked to respond, down from a smaller sample.

Just 37 percent of employees said they believe the survey results will be used to make their agency a better place to work.

Agencies whose scores dropped cited a variety of reasons, from a lack of leadership to shifting policies on telework.

A spokesman for the Export-Import Bank blamed his agency’s poor ratings on the lack of a confirmed chairman since Trump took office last year and the lack of a quorum on the agency’s board of directors since 2015. The lack of a quorum has restricted the bank’s ability to make loans.

At the Agriculture Department, whose rating dropped to 59 percent from 65.9 last year, spokesman Tim Murtaugh attributed the decline in part to Secretary Sonny Perdue’s restrictions on telework, which has affected 20 percent of agency employees.

“In any organization, large or small, adjustments can take time to permeate the culture,” Murtaugh said, describing the change as “respectful of the large majority [of agency employees] who report to a physical work location every day.”

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, said DeVos “challenged department leaders to rethink the way the Department of Education operates so that we can better serve students and use taxpayer funds more wisely. That has required a lot of change over the last year, which can be difficult for some.”

The agency’s scores fell 12.4 points as DeVos slashed telework, limited hiring and clashed with her agency’s union.

At the State Department, another agency faced with an exodus of career diplomats under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said the results of the survey, “while unfortunate, were not unexpected and primarily cover the difficulties that the department faced in 2017 including retirements, the redesign and the hiring freeze, all of which lowered morale.”

He said Secretary Mike Pompeo “reversed these policies upon his confirmation, and today we are working hard to continue build ing the world’s finest diploma tic corps.”