Best-in-Government Survey Shows Federal Agencies With Low Employee Satisfaction


The latest Best Places to Work in the federal government rankings, released Wednesday, raise troubling issues for the Biden administration and federal agencies, whose reputations are rapidly sinking.

Across government, the 4.5-point drop in employee engagement overall, an estimate of morale, is a troubling indication that agencies large and small need significant improvements. Nearly two-thirds of agencies saw results drop or stay the same — not a good sign. Employee engagement scores are the key element in the annual assessments produced by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group.

Federal employee satisfaction and engagement show a sharp decline under Biden

One agency that has consistently ranked at the bottom, again this year, is the Department of Homeland Security. For 10 years in a row she has been the last among 17 major agencies. The Federal Trade Commission has managed to fall from second place in 2020 to 22nd among two dozen mid-size agencies – with top leadership being the alleged culprit. Within the Social Security Administration, the Office of the Inspector General has declined sharply, ranking last among the agency’s 432 sub-units. The National Labor Relations Board remained at the bottom of its mid-range category, despite a notable improvement in its score.

“This isn’t about happy employees,” said Max Stier, President and CEO of the partnership. “We’re looking at if they’re honestly more productive, if they’re actually getting better results for the public. And that’s really important.”

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

Uncertainty about returning to work after many federal employees worked from home during the pandemic may have contributed to the poor ratings. However, the quality and availability of leadership is always a key issue. The engagement score is calculated from three questions from the employee survey by the Office for Personnel Management: Would you recommend your agency as a good place to work? How satisfied are you with your work? How satisfied are you with your organization?

“The significant drop in staff engagement and satisfaction came during President Biden’s first year in office, during which the administration saw only 55% of its nominations that required Senate confirmation fully confirmed,” the partnership said in a statement. “The problem of executive vacancies poses a major challenge for the administration, which describes federal employees as the ‘backbone of our government’ and has pledged in the President’s management agenda to ‘make every federal job a good job, in which all employees participate be engaged and supported, heard and empowered.’ ”

Here’s a closer look at some agencies where that promise takes a lot of work.

• With a decade down the road, DHS seems hopeless. Taurus has long emphasized the importance of leaders, and DHS had plenty of them, which is probably a big part of the problem. During her 10-year tenure, the department had 11 secretaries, either confirmed or acting. Some of them are – presumably – good leaders, but the turnover hasn’t been good for the workplace. To improve its performance, DHS said it holds awards ceremonies, publishes a weekly employee newsletter, conducts monthly executive forums and improves procedures to reduce paperwork in favor of more direct service to customers.

• The NLRB showed a remarkable improvement from 54.7 in 2020 to 60.9 in 2021. Yet it remained bottom in its category with Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. “The number one issue for improving morale at the NLRB is adequate funding,” NLRB spokeswoman Kayla Blado said in an email. “Because we’ve been allocated the same $274.2 million in Congressional funding for nine straight years—effectively a 25% budget cut—our dedicated employees are being forced to do a lot more with a lot less. While our union election petitions are skyrocketing and unfair labor practices charges are also increasing, we have lost 50% of our field workers over the past two decades. Our employees across the country are feeling the effects of this crisis, and an allocation of resources that seriously addresses our resource concerns will help the hard-working NLRB staff accomplish our important mission.”

• The Social Security Inspector General plays an important investigative role. That office needs to examine its sharp drop in engagement score from 56.2 in 2020 to 33.3 in 2021. Rebecca Rose, a spokeswoman for the agency, said these results “do not reflect all of the efforts we have made to improve employee morale” as the workforce was not surveyed until late 2021, including the establishment of a full-time health director and “the implementation of maximum workplace flexibility during Covid and for the steps we are taking to make the pilot permanent”.

• The FTC’s plunge of 24 points was a remarkable feat led by Chairwoman Lina Khan. The agency ranks no higher than 18th out of 23 agencies in three out of four leadership metrics. For senior executives, a group that includes Khan, the score was even lower at 22. This is in sharp contrast to employees’ view of their immediate FTC supervisors. Managers closest to workers were ranked high at #2 out of 23 agencies. FTC employees are also very dissatisfied with their pay and agency performance. A statement from the agency said Khan had “tremendous respect” for the FTC’s workforce and linked the poor performance to “a period of significant change at the FTC, which is always difficult.”

Improvement can also be difficult, but it happens with good managers.

Stier emphasized that leadership drives employee engagement more than anything else.

“Bad management,” he said, “creates a moral problem.” Best-in-Government Survey Shows Federal Agencies With Low Employee Satisfaction

James Brien

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