This year’s 4th of July will feel more normal, whatever that is, from last year’s, at the height of the pandemic uncertainty. My days of lighting off bottle rockets and strings of firecrackers are past, sort of. I do maintain the habit of re-reading the Declaration of Independence.
The dated prose still cuts cleanly, especially the unmodified conclusion on the character of King George III: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
I love that line.
So after the fireworks, parades and hot dogs, we celebrate not only freedom from, but freedom with purpose. For self government is not nihilism but the obligation for honesty, forbearance and a touch of modesty about the purposes and rightful boundaries of government. The pandemic and its aftermath have tested those.
After 30 years of covering the government in one medium or another, I do admire the touch of modesty and forbearance I’ve seen in some of the most skilled public servants I’ve known. And I’ve known a lot of them. Although I can’t say that, as a person, I’ve had to face a zealous criminal prosecutor or an exacting environmental regulator.
Our latter day reality is a really big government, more extensive than the Founders could have imagined. For better or worse, it’s wound into the day-to-day life of Americans. Also true: The nation is richer, more technologically advanced, and more diverse than anyone could have reasonably imagined 245 years ago. If you said to old John Adams, “You’ll have to go through a millimeter wave advanced imaging scanner, and wear an anti-virus mask before boarding this airplane to Boston Logan,” he wouldn’t have understood a word you said. Maybe “Boston.”
As the largest employer, the federal government of today is an endlessly fascinating institution. Each year about now, along with the federal holiday of Independence Day, out come the rankings of Best Places To Work in the federal government — a concept that would have puzzled the signers of the Declaration.
The most remarkable thing about the latest Best Places to Work in the federal government rankings? How unremarkable the results actually are. In fact, they nearly match last year’s, and the year before that.
A casual reading shows, gosh, engagement scores look way up across the board. Perennial top-ranked NASA, for instance, saw its 2020 score rise to 86.6%, from 81.5% a year before. Homeland Security rose from 52.3% to 61.1% in the same period. The Government Accountability Office, the usual topper among mid-sized agencies, saw its engagement score rise from 81.8% in 2019 to 89.4% in the latest edition.
So, did federal employees undergo an epiphany in the pandemic and find renewed gusto in their public service? That’s hard to tell.
The Partnership for Public Service, which produces the Best Place to Work listings, included this note on how it calculates the scores, which are derived from answers to certain question on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: “Previously, we divided the number of positive responses (e.g., the number of respondents who answered “agree” or “strongly agree”) by the total number of people who completed the survey. Beginning in 2020, the Partnership divided the number of positive responses to each question by the number of people who answered that particular question. This change resulted in smaller denominators, filtering out respondents who skip questions, and slightly larger percent-positives [emphasis mine].”
Therefore, how much of that engagement score uptick is attributable to people being happier at work versus attributable to the change in scoring methodology is impossible to know?
You can find evidence, though, that the pandemic did have a positive influence. Feds gave high marks to their agencies’ responses to the COVID pandemic. Satisfaction with pay, while middling, exceeds the average in the private sector.
The usual issues resurfaced. Too many employees don’t think survey scores will spur much change. Leadership is seen as ineffective. And so on. One clear signal is that satisfaction ratings, perceptions of leadership, feelings about agency effectiveness or employee empowerment — those aren’t related to who’s in the White House. They have more to do with who’s running individual agencies than who’s running the political apparatus.
Well, one exception. For whatever reasons, the employee engagement index for the Office of Management and Budget sank like a stone in 2020, from a high of 76.3 to 54.6, or number 29 on the list. Swings of that magnitude are unusual in the rankings, even with smaller denominators. Sometimes it’s the numerator.