Tough times for many federal employees, new report finds

The Environmental Protection Agency's employees do not appear thrilled with the direction of their department.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s employees do not appear thrilled with the direction of their department.

For the second year in a row, the agency’s employee engagement fell notably, and now sits at less than 58%, according to the latest annual tally of federal workforce morale conducted by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

All of the separate offices within the EPA also reported decreases in worker engagement. Their former leader, Scott Pruitt, was forced to resign after series of ethical scandals. The agency’s new director, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has continued the dismantling of numerous environmental regulations.

Elsewhere around Washington’s federal workforce, there were also signs of discontent.

The decline at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was among the most notable examples in the new survey: last year, roughly three-out-of-four employees said they were engaged positively at work. Now? Barely 50%. The agency’s recently departed leader under President Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney, previously called for shuttering the agency entirely. He was then accused of leading an enforcement slowdown during his tenure at the helm.

Over at the Department of Education, where critics charge that Secretary Betsy Devos is hostile to public education and has rolled out the welcome mat to for-profit colleges, the agency was dead last for morale among mid-size federal agencies. Down 12 percentage points since last year, less than half of employees now express positive vibes about their workplace.

“This is a report card on the administration,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which publishes the rankings each year “It’s clear there should be concern.”

Since the Trump administration was slow to fill top jobs across the federal government, this year’s survey is the first where most agencies and offices finally have appointed leaders, as opposed to temporary officials filling the senior roles,

Employee engagement dropped at nearly six-out-of-10 federal agencies and organizations surveyed, compared with 2017. That’s a significant change from the last three years’ worth of surveys, when seven-out-of-10 federal organizations actually reported gains in morale.

However, there remain some agencies where morale is high. Stier said the surveys found that roughly two-thirds of engagement rankings were correlated with confidence in the agency’s senior leadership.

“Where you have strong, effective leaders, you have agencies that are humming,” he said. “But where you have leaders that aren’t getting the job done, you’re seeing agencies going in the opposite direction and struggling.”

He said some agency chiefs, like Linda McMahon at the US Small Business Administration, are setting positive examples of how to do it right.

And it continues to be a sweet deal to work at agencies like NASA, the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, where engagement topped 80% of employees this year.

Others, though, are clearly struggling.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which has announced plans to close two offices, saw employee engagement drop by 31 percentage points compared with last year. The Export-Import Bank, which was unable for several years to take major actions because of board vacancies, and which some conservative lawmakers tried to abolish, dropped by 18 percentage points, to where only 37% of workers feel positively engaged at the office.

In certain instances, two agencies dealing with similar subjects nevertheless reported starkly different morale trends among workers.

The US International Trade Commission increased its score by five percentage points, and 86% of its workers reported positive engagement. But the Office of the US Trade Representative’s engagement score fell 3 percentage points, to employee engagement of only 58%.

Stier’s organization, in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group, released the rankings report on Wednesday. It covers 488 federal agencies and components and is published annually, based on surveys conducted by the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies. The OPM surveys were conducted between April and June, before President Trump announced in August plans to cancel a 2019 pay raise. The Trump administration has also made several efforts to undercut the role of employee unions and make it easier to fire employees.

Overall across all federal organizations surveyed, positive employee engagement averaged about 65% this year.

In addition to the ones mentioned above, agencies plummeting compared with last year include:

  • The National Labor Relations Board, where reports of leadership infighting have come as the Trump administration seeks to pull back pro-worker decisions of the Obama administration
  • Among smaller sub-offices, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, a part of the Homeland Security Department — sunk by 47 points from last year, to only 14% satisfaction
  • Among the 16 largest federal agencies, the Department of Agriculture saw the largest decline in morale, down 7 points from last year

One federal agency that perennially has morale issues, the Department of Veterans Affairs, chose not to participate in the report at all this year, and rather conducted their own internal surveys. Last year, it was last among large departments, with only 56% positive employee engagement.

Across the government, the Top 10 offices or agencies for the happiest employees this year are:

  • Office of Inspector General (TVA)
  • Office of the General Counsel (FERC)
  • Bureau of Consumer Protection – All (FTC)
  • Bureau of Competition – All (FTC)
  • Office of General Counsel (SEC)
  • Office of Financial Management (SEC)
  • Region I (NRC)
  • Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
  • Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (Treasury)
  • National Examination Program (SEC)

The Bottom 10 for worst morale, listed from worst to less-worst, are:

  • Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DHS)
  • Office of Intelligence and Analysis (DHS)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (HHS)
  • Export-Import Bank of the United States
  • Office of the General Counsel (Education)
  • Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (Education)
  • Office of the Inspector General (Commerce)
  • Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board
  • Office of the Administrator (EPA)
  • Office of the General Counsel (EPA)

 

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