Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Best in Government survey shows federal agencies with poor


The latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, released on Wednesday, raise troubling issues for the Biden administration and those federal agencies whose reputations are falling fast.

Across the government, the overall 4.5-point drop 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 — 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.

Federal employee satisfaction, engagement show steep drop under Biden

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 432 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, the Partnership’s president and CEO. “We’re looking at whether they’re, frankly, more productive, whether they’re 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 better customer experience. Ultimately, the rankings relate to the quality of service the federal government provides taxpayers.

Uncertainty about return-to-work policies, 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 Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: 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?

“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 in a statement. “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 probably is a big part of the problem. During its 10 years at the bottom, the department 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 54.7 score in 2020 to 60.9 in 2021. Nonetheless, it remained tied with 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,” said NLRB press secretary Kayla Blado in an email. “Because we’ve been given the same congressional appropriation of $274.2 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 hard-working people at the NLRB fulfill our important mission.”

• Social Security’s inspector general plays an important investigative role. That office needs to investigate its steep engagement score fall from 56.2 in 2020 to 33.3 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’s 24-point nosedive was 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 employees’ view on their immediate FTC supervisors. Those managers closest to the workers received a high ranking of number 2 of 23 agencies. FTC workers also are very unhappy with their pay and the agency’s performance. An agency statement said Khan has “enormous respect” for the FTC’s workforce and linked the poor showing to “a period of considerable change at the FTC, which is always difficult.”

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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