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Channeling Hamilton

The Office of Personnel Management released the results of its 2009 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey on Monday. Based on interviews with 250,000 federal employees, the survey contains a mix of positives and negatives about the state of the federal service.

Conservatives will no doubt seize on the pay and performance data, while liberals will celebrate employee commitment to mission and general satisfaction. The pressure for pay and hiring freezes will continue, as will efforts to accelerate the hiring process and jumpstart productivity.

But if Congress and the president want a more historical framework for interpreting the survey results, they should read Alexander Hamilton's writings on the basic characteristics of an energetic federal service.

As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 76, "The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration." Using that single measure, the viewpoint survey suggests that the federal government is in trouble.

Hamilton believed that a government well executed starts with employee commitment to what he called "extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit." By that measure, he would find hopeful evidence in the new survey. Most federal employees understand their mission and feel they are doing a good job. More than three quarters said they know what is expected of them, how their work relates to their agency's goals and priorities, and are willing to go the extra mile to get a job done.

Hamilton also argued that the government must harness this energy through meaningful jobs. Federal employees can hardly make a difference if their responsibilities are so narrow that they cannot create their own social impacts. Hamilton would find mixed results on this characteristic.

On the upside, substantial majorities of federal employees said they have the information to do their jobs well, and are given a "real" opportunity to improve their skills, physical conditions are fine, and their talents are mostly well used.

On the downside, barely half of federal employees said their training needs are assessed, and only 41 percent said that creativity and innovation are rewarded. They may be encouraged to try new things, but are not necessarily thanked for doing so. More significantly, only 55 percent said the skill level in their work level has improved in the past year. The number should have been much higher given the stakes at hand.

Hamilton was emphatic about what he called the "adequate provision of support." At least on this measure, he would be shocked at the survey results. Barely half of federal employees said they were satisfied with the information they receive from management, agreed that arbitrary action, favoritism and coercion are not tolerated, and said they have sufficient resources such as people, materials, and budget to get their jobs done. More troubling, just 46 percent said their work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills. This number should be 100 percent.

Hamilton would be deeply concerned about employee views of their own leaders. Although most federal employees were satisfied with their immediate supervisors, substantial majorities gave failing marks to senior leaders and higher-level managers. Barely half said their managers promote communication among different work units, support collaboration, or generate high levels of motivation. Just 55 percent said they had a high level of respect for their organization's senior leaders, and only 46 percent said they were satisfied with the policies and practices of their senior leaders.

Finally, Hamilton believed federal employees should be rewarded and disciplined on the faithful execution of the laws, not favoritism. As he would quickly discover reading through the survey results, most federal employees say that merit and performance have very little impact on pay and promotions. Barely half said they were satisfied with the recognition they receive for doing a good job, even fewer said merit had much of anything to do with pay or promotions. Only 37 percent said differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way, just 31 percent said their steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve, and just 26 percent said pay raises depend on how well employees perform their job.

Personally, I am not sure how to interpret the employee responses to the workload question. Given the enormous pressure on the federal government right now, how could 61 percent say that their workloads were reasonable? I would have guessed that the percentage would have been much lower, and I wonder whether we are asking too little right now.

Setting aside this puzzle, Hamilton would look at the overall results and shudder. This is neither a glass half full or empty, but a glass not full enough. Congress and the president must do something about the state of the public service, starting with the weak link between performance and all that follows. Federal employees are saying they need more support to do their jobs well. It is time to give it to them.

By Paul Light

 |  July 15, 2010; 6:49 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Have you heard of work place bullying? It is rampant in the Federal Government. I am not sure what causes it but generally the instigators are Grade 14 supervisors who seem bored in having had the same job for ten plus years. They wield their power and encourage other employees (subordinates) to join them in the game of harassing one victim generally it is an employee who belongs to a different culture. The goal is to project the victim's work as sub-standard and run the person off the job. It reminds me of dancing to the shooting gun in old time Westerns. Productivity is deceptive and performance appraisals are even more deceptive. The best harassers are given the best appraisals and the victim is put on a Performance Improvement Plan! If you read the ideas presented in the President's SaveAward site one will realize all is not right in the Federal Administration and work place bullying and harassing by managers is widespread and epidemic.

Posted by: RT85 | July 25, 2010 2:40 AM

If you go home at the end of the day without management having threatened to reduce your grade, reassign you, or remove you, then the workload is "reasonable".

This is how the overwhelming majority of bargaining unit employees judge the "reasonability" of the work load, and it is sympotmatic of the worn/beaten down state of the Federal work force.

Posted by: plan9 | July 18, 2010 5:51 PM

You should be very concerned. We all should. If you read behind the comments so far, you'll see that leadership and management in the federal government is broken. Leaders don't provide clear visions, managers don't balance workload and resolve problems, and employees shrug off empowerment. Nobody believes they can fix the problems they see. Status quo perpetuates.

You might have expected that Obama would address this. He swept in with the "yes, we can" slogan, but he and his party have fallen captive to the "no, you won't" union leaders. There complaint that managers don't know how to assess performance is credible. They never had to do it well under the General Schedule, because it never factored in salary decisions. The criteria for a pay increase under that system is endurance. Stick around long enough without offending anyone and you get another ~3% raise. Not a bad reward for keeping quiet and not rocking the boat. It probably explains why attrition is so low across the federal government regardless of the economic conditions. Why leave? Its a great deal.

The idea of linking pay decisions to performance ratings makes perfect sense. If you ask federal employees, the majority will regularly agree that pay should be linked to performance. But federal managers aren't trained to do this well. The employees know it. So you cannot simply make a switch. NSPS is an example, DCIPS is another. Defense would have been smarter to focus on improving the credibility of their performance management system first. But they didn't, so both programs failed.

I don't think this is a hopeless problem. But I also don't think the current leadership has the will to address the real problems. They'll choose to focus on other things. Which probably explains why they are held in such high regard.

Posted by: doubtingthomasovich | July 17, 2010 10:39 AM

I agree with Eleiana. When the Cheif of your own Division doesn't respect what his employees face and manage to produce given the dismal resources at our disposal it's difficult to raise your head. Our agency leaders have made it crystal clear they don't like us, they don't trust us, and they don't want us.

Our local staffing went from 7 to 2 in 2000. We did not cut services or programs or budget. We are attempting to run a people service with no people to service people. I am responsible for $180 million in land and property. I have 24,000 acres of land and water that I manage with over 1/2 million visitors annually. It's just me and 1 maintenance worker. 14 hour days are common. Lunch? On the run in the truck, maybe. Days off? 21+ days with no days off is not out of the question. Recognition? I got my obligatory 3.2 shares from NSPS because, you know, I could being doing just a little more. Training? You're kidding, right? If either of us are gone for training there's nobdy here to keep failing. And our holy annointed ones are not about to leave this place unmanned. They have set us up to fail. And being dedicated Federal employees, come hell or highwater, we will make sure they accomplish their mission.

Our agency proclaims itself to be the premier engineering agency in the world. Sometimes I question our ability to engineer a mouse trap. My situation is one of many just like it in this organization. In no way, shape, or form am I serving the American public. I am serving the leaders of this Division and I doubt whether they have heard of Alexander Hamilton. After all, he wasn't an engineer.

The term public servant is a misnomer. There is no such thing as public service in today's government. Nest feathering, ticket punching, and vote getting are alive and well but public service is non-existent.

Posted by: du2044 | July 16, 2010 11:03 AM

>"Given the enormous pressure on the >federal government right now, how could >61 percent say that their workloads were >reasonable?"

I can only speak for myself (and indirectly for colleagues I've observed), but part of it is *because* of the pressures on us...or rather, because of the fact that we've dealt with them ever-increasing for so long now, I think we've all forgotten what "reasonable" looks like...if I have time to eat lunch, that's a "reasonable" day...

>"Federal employees are saying they need >more support to do their jobs well. It is >time to give it to them.

I'd also suggest starting as well with public/political (especially political, as it drives the rest)perception of us...quite often the civil service gets blamed for things we have little control over, which makes about as little sense as blaming soldiers for a war would. But this shooting of the messenger, so to speak, happens anyways, by both the public and even worse the politicians, and with great regularity...and there's about nothing worse for morale than when you hear your "bosses" claim you're all lazy, overpaid, and surplus.


Posted by: Eleiana | July 15, 2010 5:05 PM

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