It’s not just the federal government, but every sector of the U.S. workforce, that’s at an inflection point on what the future of work will look like.
Federal and private sector employees alike are trending down when it comes to engagement at work. That’s for a combination of reasons, but one that’s prevalent is how organizations are grappling with in-office versus remote work settings, and how that boils down to employees’ productivity, satisfaction and work-life balance.
The Partnership for Public Service’s 2021 results for the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government show that agencies are faring significantly worse than the nationwide workforce when it comes to engagement. Feds lag nearly 15 points behind the private sector, recent data from the employee research firm Mercer found.
“That’s something that we all need to think about as we’re thinking about recruitment and retention, and the options that federal employees have,” Loren DeJonge Schulman, the Partnership’s vice president for research, evaluation and modernizing government, said at the Best Places to Work rankings ceremony.
The low satisfaction score comes at a critical time for the federal government. Right now, 15% of federal employees are eligible to retire. That number will double in the next five years. And, only 7% of the federal workforce is under age 30. If a retirement wave rolls through, agencies will have to step up their recruitment and hiring strategies, especially to compete with private industries.
But there’s more to the story than the average 14.6-point difference. Although in general the federal government is behind the private sector for engagement, many agencies were more successful than the private sector when looking individually. At least 12 agencies in the 2021 Best Places to Work rankings scored higher than the private sector for employee engagement. Those organizations may be valuable in helping others that are struggling.
“Competing with the private sector is not impossible,” Schulman said. “[It’s] definitely something that is doable for all agencies as you learn from one another.”
The agencies that did better than private sector this year include NASA, the Government Accountability Office, the National Science Foundation, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, to name a few.
Breaking down the data further, though, presents more mixed results. One statistic stands out in particular: federal employees scored 40.1 out of 100 points when asked if they believe leaders will use the results of the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to make their agencies a better place to work. The private sector, however, scored 71 on a similar question.
“That is a really fundamental issue that I hope leaders across government take on,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, told Federal News Network. “The most important thing that can be done is for agencies to actually listen, and to demonstrate that they’re listening by making changes. If that happens, then employees will respond more.”
On the bright side, Mercer also reported a few areas where agencies pulled ahead. More feds than private sector workers said they’re able to cooperate with coworkers to get their jobs done. Federal workers reported higher satisfaction with their pay (although overall, that number has declined since 2020). More feds also agreed that their supervisors support professional development.
Daniel Werfel, the Boston Consulting Group’s leader for the public sector, and a former Office of Management and Budget controller, told Federal News Network that everyone, not just the federal government, is going through an inflection point on how to engage their employees.
“There’s a lot of discussion around [the idea that] we’re trailing the private sector,” he said. “We are, but I also think it’s important to recognize that across all industries, employee engagement scores are down.”
In fact, for federal agencies, only 35% of those in the Best Places to Work rankings marked improvements in employee engagement and satisfaction. The rest either went down or held steady from 2020. Much of the difference, and how to go back up next year, may fall to agency leaders and supervisors.
For example, federal employees had relatively positive views over how their managers handled concerns about well being during the COVID-19 pandemic. But when it came to return-to-office plans, the numbers dropped significantly. That means leaders are central to the future of recruitment and retention for the federal workforce.
Jason Miller, deputy director for management at OMB, said the growing number of retirement-eligible federal workers, coupled with agencies trailing the private sector on employee satisfaction, presents a “substantial risk.”
“We should aspire not just to compete with the private sector,” he said. “We should outperform the private sector on employee engagement.”