Morale falls at federal agencies

The Washington PostDecember 15, 2012 

It’s no secret that federal workers are feeling worn down. They’ve had their salaries frozen and are at the center of a partisan debate over the value of their work.

A report released last week, based on the largest sample ever of the workforce of 2 million, confirms a steady decline in morale and ebbing commitment.

Despite positive reports at some agencies, job satisfaction across the government has hit its lowest point in almost a decade. Just 52.9 percent of employees at the sprawling Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, are satisfied with their jobs, making it the lowest-ranked large agency, followed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The seventh annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings pose a challenge for the Obama administration, as President Barack Obama, who pledged to reinvigorate federal work and make government “cool again,” embarks on a second term.

Even workers at layoff-battered private companies are more optimistic than government employees, who historically have had far more job security, the survey by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service found.

Still, federal workers say they are committed to the missions of their agencies.

“We work for a horrible agency, but we do great work,” said Ricky McCoy, a transportation security officer at Chicago O’Hare International Airport and president of Local 777 of the American Federation of Government Employees. Just 32 percent of employees at the Transportation Security Administration, part of the DHS, are satisfied with their pay, which is among the lowest in government.

McCoy said he expects TSA’s first collective-bargaining agreement, signed in November, to improve morale. “We’re hopeful now that things will turn in our direction,” he said.

Differing work environments

DHS, which was created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has suffered from high turnover in top jobs. Spokeswoman Marsha Catron said leaders are “focused on continuing to improve employee engagement” with better communication from managers, training and rewards for good work.

But in some corners of the government, employees are happy. Employees at NASA, which ranks as the best place to work in government, give high marks to leaders and supervisors, and a culture that encourages telework. Most of all, they value their mission to continue space exploration even as the 30-year-old shuttle program was retired last year and the transition to new deep-space rockets has been slow.

“Our future was not as clear when people said goodbye to the shuttle,” said Jeri Buchholz, NASA’s personnel director. “But people rolled into new projects. They knew there really was a future in space exploration.” And no one lost their job.

Among large agencies, the intelligence community came in second, followed by the State Department, the Commerce Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. The small Army Audit Agency logged the highest score, with 85.7 percent of its workforce reporting good things about their positions and bucking a troubling trend.

Lowest satisfaction since 2003

But government-wide, 60.8 percent of employees were satisfied with their jobs this year. It’s the lowest score since the partnership began reporting the rankings in 2003, and a drop of 3.2 percent from last year. Even workers’ commitment to their agencies’ missions, the main driver of government work for many, is ebbing.

Workers’ perceptions of their leaders was key to their job satisfaction. Attitudes about leadership – as well as factors including pay, advancement opportunities and rewards for good performance – dropped. Many gains from 2008 to 2011 were erased.

Morale improved at a third of the 362 agencies and departments surveyed, according to the partnership and Deloitte, which draws its conclusions from data collected by the Office of Personnel Management. About 700,000 federal workers responded to the annual survey.

“We take these results very seriously,” said Controller Danny Werfel, who coordinates the Obama administration’s management initiatives from the Office of Management and Budget. “We need to understand where we can do better.”

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