Survey of federal workers reveals more optimism than last year

The federal workplace is a happier place today than a year ago, according to the results of the 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the government’s annual poll of federal employees.

Employee engagement rose to 64 percent, a 1 percent increase. The score is derived from answers to individual questions about employees’ leaders, supervisors and work experiences. Beth Cobert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the survey, said the uptick showed efforts over the past year were paying off.

“Some examples include better internal communication from leaders to employees, more input of employees into how their agencies operate, increased training opportunities and more explicit recognition of a job well done,” she said during a call with reporters.

Responses to 53 of the 71 core survey questions were more positive than a year ago. After plummeting to a five-year low in 2014, employees’ opinions of their senior leaders either stayed steady or rose slightly this year. Thirty-nine percent of those who responded to the survey said their leaders generated high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce, a 1 percent uptick from last year.

Individual agency results on the questions vary dramatically. For example, while 75 percent of Federal Trade Commission respondents said they trusted their leadership, only 38 percent of those in the Homeland Security Department agreed.

That suggests that each agency needs a tailored strategy, Cobert said.

More than 420,000 federal employees responded to the survey, which was conducted in April and May. Notably, federal employees said they were more satisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect their work. They said they felt more optimistic about their opportunities for training and advancement within their organization.

Feds haven’t fully recovered from budget uncertainty of recent years

The 2015 results reflect a changed landscape, said John Salamone, a former OPM official who now works with Federal Management Partners.

Changes in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey over the past three years.
Source: OPM

“The economy is getting better. Agencies have weathered the storm; the pay freezes, hiring freezes and budget cuts, although they’re still living with sequestration,” he said. “But the question is, have they really weathered the storm or adjusted to a new reality?”

Survey results remain far below their peak earlier in the Obama administration. Opinions of senior leaders’ honesty and integrity have sunk 5 percentage points since 2012.

Since then, federal employees have faced a government shutdown, furloughs, hiring freezes and budget uncertainty as Congress struggles to pass spending bills. That atmosphere “is not conducive to people feeling like they’re being respected or able to do their best work,” she said.

“As we’ve had some stability in the last year, we’ve been able to see improvements. People have predictability. They can plan, not just for themselves, but for the programs they’re working on every single day,” she said.

Making greater strides on employee engagement will require sustaining that momentum, she said.

“It’s about capturing that potential as we go forward in a world where people can have the resources they need to do their jobs,” she said. “We are not accepting a new normal. We think we have an immensely talented and dedicated workforce.”

Government must take record strides to meet 2016 engagement goal

The White House aims to raise the governmentwide engagement index to 67 percent in 2016, the final year of the Obama administration. The government won’t reach the goal at this pace, Salamone noted.

“At 1 percent per year, it would take three to four years to get the engagement scores back up,” he said. “I’d classify it as a stretch goal, and a big stretch at that.”

While acknowledging the goal was ambitious, Cobert said the government would not give up.

“When I see what some agencies have done, I think we need to continue to strive to reach the goal set,” she said.

She singled out the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Management and Budget as two organizations that had made notable progress on employee engagement. HUD raised its index score to 62 percent, a 5-point improvement over 2014. OMB made a similar stride, tying the Federal Trade Commission for the top engagement score of 78 percent.

At both agencies, leaders have taken on the issue themselves, rather than relegating it to their human resources departments, she said.

“It is something agency leadership has embraced. It’s a big topic of discussions at the President’s Management Council meetings with deputy secretaries,” she said.

Altering the engagement score, which is an index based on answers to several questions, is not easy to do, said John Foley, director of planning and policy analysis at OPM.

“The engagement index has been declining for several years. Here, it stopped the decline and increased some,” he said.

While some agencies are at or above the 67 percent mark on the engagement index, the government will miss its overall target unless other agencies catch up. DHS, troubled for years by low morale and leadership problems, continues to drag down the governmentwide average.

OPM chief feels a “sense of urgency” to improve scores

The 2016 engagement goal is pushing agencies to study the data and implement strategies quickly, Cobert said.

“The commitment to a tangible goal, even though it’s ambitious, is what drives that kind of change and represents a sense of urgency,” she said.

OPM wants agencies to use the survey as a management tool, she added. OPM’s year-old website UnlockTalent.gov offers 20,000 federal managers a precise look at their individual offices’ results. This year, all federal employees will be able to access that data, Cobert said.   

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“We want agencies to use this data to understand where things are working well at multiple levels,” she said. “How can they find those pockets of excellence in their agencies, understand those best practices and figure out how to improve them?”

Even DHS, which had the lowest overall scores, is using the data to find those offices that are doing a great job, said Kimla Lee, an OPM senior advisor on research and evaluation.

“What’s so important about drilling down to the lowest levels possible: you can’t move full ship at the highest level without moving the individual offices,” she said.

Over the past year, agencies have made senior officials within their organizations responsible for employee engagement. They have come together to discuss barriers and best practices, she said.

Already they have found certain strategies work across government. Efforts to improve both internal and external communication, and to recognize employees’ achievements have made a difference, Foley said.