The workforce is not our problem in government

Margaret Weichert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget

During an interview with Francis Rose on Government Matters, Margaret Weichert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, expressed her belief that the federal workforce is not the source of the government’s problems and clearly identified them as part of the solution.

As a long-time advocate for the federal workforce, I found that to be reassuring. The evidence is clear that federal workers care very deeply about the work they do. Just last week, OPM issued the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Governmentwide Management Report. The FEVS results showed that 91 percent of federal workers are looking for ways to do their jobs better and 96 percent are willing to put in extra effort to get their job done.

The 2018 FEVS had some negative findings as well, including only 38 percent believing performance is recognized in a meaningful way, and a dismal 32 percent believing their agencies take steps to deal with poor performers. Even with those negatives, the overall trend in FEVS results is generally positive.

The fact that federal workers care about the mission of their agencies and are willing to put in extra effort to get the work done is important. Many agencies have seen drops in staffing in the past two years, without a corresponding drop in workload. That means more people are asked to do more work. When we combine the increased workload with the fact that most employees feel differences in performance are not recognized, we could be putting those FEVS increases and the workforce at risk. More critically, we could be putting the government’s ability to carry out vital missions at risk.

I believe there are ways to reduce agency staffing and costs, but to do it right requires planning and rethinking how work is done. As  Weichert said, the workforce is part of that solution. Very few people know the problems of the federal government as well as the people who actually do the work. They can tell us where the problems are, where the waste is, and what really needs to be done to get more work done with fewer resources. There are a few questions in the FEVS that tell us where we could focus efforts to improve how we listen to federal workers.

From 2014 to 2018, the positive responses to the question “How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work?” have increased from 48 percent to 54 percent. That is a meaningful move in the right direction, but it needs to go much higher. Including workers in the decisions that affect their day-to-day work is critical if we really want to see agencies do more with less.

High commitment, poor leadership

Another area that needs a lot of attention is the level of motivation and commitment that senior leaders generate. Only 44 percent are satisfied with how their senior leaders are doing. Leaders set the tone for the organization. Even though the workforce has very high levels of commitment, poor leadership can wear that down and cause commitment, motivation and ultimately productivity to drop.

Less than half of respondents said they had the resources they need to get their jobs done, and only 37 percent said promotions in their work units are based on merit. A pitiful 41 percent agreed that “the results of the FEVS will be used to make my agency a better place to work” and even fewer (38 percent) are satisfied with their opportunity to get a better job in their organization.

We should be encouraged by the uptick in employee views on some key issues. I am also encouraged that Weichert sees the federal workforce as part of the solution to the government’s problems. What worries me is that some of the negatives appear to be improving so slowly that it will take far too long to get them from bad to good. At the current rate of improvement, it would be 2030 or later before some of the negatives break the 50 percent positive level.

If federal workers are the solution and not the problem, one indicator that has to improve is rewarding creativity and innovation. Only 43 percent say creativity and innovation are rewarded (up from 35 percent in 2014). Federal workers want to do better and help their agencies improve. They are committed to their missions. They are willing to put in extra effort. But 57 percent cannot say their agencies reward creativity and innovation.

Imagine how many ideas could emerge if 80 percent of employees said their agencies rewarded creativity and innovation, or if a similar percentage said their senior leaders inspire commitment and motivation? The talent is there, waiting for a chance to excel if they are given a chance.

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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