FEVS scores were a meh. Here’s how to raise them

When it comes to viewpoint survey scores, it's important not to confuse cause and effect

At first look, you might say results from the latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are middling at best. They didn’t move from last year’s results. Neither up nor down.

At least on average. In that sense, the latest scores are, if not good news, at least they’re un-bad news.

The most useful way to view the FEVS scores is agency-by-agency. In a population of two million employees, with a couple of hundred thousand actually completing the survey, the governmentwide average simply isn’t going to move that much year-to-year no matter what happens. Agency-by-agency shows wide variances, helping individual agency managers pinpoint problems. Some agencies do remarkably well.

Yet averages can tell you things, too. For example, recent years’ scores show how little effect a given presidential administration exerts on results. The Trump administration might have been problematic, yet average employee engagement and the intrinsic work experience indices rose 4 points between 2019 and 2020. On the other hand, within its zone of fluctuation, federal employment satisfaction historically lags that of the private sector. 2020 also brought the pandemic, and with it big and important jobs for many agencies.

The results show, as they always do, no lack of dedication to the job, nor failure in the belief that federal agency work can be a positive force. Scores also show that people are generally satisfied with their immediate supervisors.

Ultimately, though, these indicators move when people do things differently.

Bob Tobias, a regular Federal Drive with Tom Temin guest, has been studying manager-line employee relations and the conduct of public sector leadership for decades. He’s also one of the original developers of the Best Places To Work in the Federal Government series, the results of which derive from the basic FEVS scores. Tobias expresses a neat, short list of manager practices that engender better employee performance and esprit d’corps:

  • When delegating work to do, also delegate enough authority to get it done
  • Acknowledge when people do good work, and stay constructive when giving corrective feedback
  • Work together on development plans

Now the White House is telling agencies to scour their FEVS scores, and look for questions where individual offices or bureaus lag. Alas, the 11-page memo, single-spaced is in parts nearly unintelligible. Here’s a sample:

“To create an enhanced and more equitable employee engagement experience across their workforce, agencies should select: (1) an OPM FEVS EEI subfactor (Supervisor, Leaders Lead, Intrinsic Work Experience) or a minimum of three EEI questions within each subfactor, and (2) identified employee groups as defined by the OPM FEVS demographic questions and/or organizational units for which the agency has identified a gap in the selected EEI subfactor or questions, and has plans to target that gap through improvement actions. The goal is to narrow the gap in EEI scores among identified demographic/work units by 20 percent by the end of 2024.”

This comes under this stated goal: “Increase agency OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS) Employee Engagement Index (EEI) scores by narrowing agency-identified gaps in EEI by employee group or organizational unit by 20 percent.”

But the OMB has stated it exactly backwards.

What they’re actually trying to do is make progress on a “pillar” of the administration’s management agenda, the one about boosting the federal workforce. The key is not to constantly survey to see how people feel about hiring, or intrinsic work experience. That, as the farmer said, is trying to fatten the pig by weighing it. What matters is actually to improve hiring, to train managers in effective leadership, to recognize high performance, all those things that make for a desirable place to work. That’s how the scores will go up.


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