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.
July 15, 2010; 6:49 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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