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Study: Feds don't like their agency leaders

Apr. 28, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Concerns about chronically low morale at the Deparment of Homeland Security were severe enough to prompt a congressional hearing last month.
Concerns about chronically low morale at the Deparment of Homeland Security were severe enough to prompt a congressional hearing last month. (Department of Homeland Security)

When it comes to empowering, motivating and communicating with employees, top federal executives fare worse in the eyes of their employees than do corporate leaders.

That is the conclusion of a new study by the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzed data gathered in last year's federal employee satisfaction survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.

Only 43 percent of feds surveyed last year said their senior leaders inspired "high levels of motivation and commitment." That compares to 56 percent in the private sector, the report said.

Forty-eight percent of feds said they were satisfied with information received from top management about what's happening in their organizations.

"What's interesting about this is that government is a fishbowl," said John Palguta, the partnership's vice president for policy. "Information about what's going on is supposed to be out there and available; yet somehow there's this disconnect."

One reason may be that agency chiefs are reluctant to share bad news on budgets and other matters.

"We've got to learn to treat employees as adults," Palguta said. That's true, he added, even if the message is "right now, we don't know what's going to happen."

No matter what the agency, leaders' standing may be whipsawed by factors outside their control, such as when Congress strips money from a program that is performing well.

The OPM survey defines senior leaders as "the heads of agencies, departments and their senior management teams." Those leaders are typically members of the Senior Executive Service or the equivalent, the partnership report said.

Federal supervisors fared slightly better overall, and in some particular instances, much better.

At the Department of Homeland Security, for example, supervisors scored more than one-third higher in employee satisfaction than senior leaders, the report found.

Governmentwide, two-thirds of survey respondents thought their immediate supervisors or team leaders were doing a good job; almost as many said their supervisors supported employee development.

But for senior leaders, there is some good news: They are doing better in their staffs' eyes than just a few years ago. From 2003 to last year, employee satisfaction with senior leaders edged upward by about 15 percent, the report said.

Last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked first among large federal agencies in employee satisfaction with top leadership, according to the survey.

The Department of Homeland Security was last.

Concerns about chronically low morale at DHS were severe enough to prompt a congressional hearing last month.

Although DHS employees believe strongly in their work, "what does it say when ... only 37 percent are satisfied with their senior leaders' policies and practices?" asked Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee.

In response, DHS chief human capital officer Catherine Emerson ticked off a series of steps to improve the department's standing. Among them, she said, was the February launch of a steering committee to promote employee engagement.

DHS is also creating a three-week leadership training program for all new executives, including Senior Executive Service members and Coast Guard admirals.

Relatively rapid turnarounds are indeed possible. The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which hears disputes between agencies and federal labor unions, ranked third last year among small agencies on the partnership's leadership index with a score of 71, up dramatically from 26 in 2007.

"You have to continue to be mindful of the needs of employees and the needs of your customers," FLRA Chairman Carol Waller Pope said in an interview.

Pope, who started at the agency as a career staffer, became chairman three years ago.

When she took over, Pope said, "there was a lack of transparency around agency operations." It didn't help that the agency's staff of about 130 is dispersed among regional and headquarters offices.

As an antidote, the agency began publishing a newsletter emailed to all staff every Friday. Besides offering employee profiles, the newsletter shares more substantive information, such as the agency's budget request and progress toward meeting performance goals.

"I've learned that employee engagement and satisfaction produce mission results," she said.

Another agency, the U.S. Mint, was a perennial cellar dweller on yardsticks of employee job satisfaction and commitment. In the last two years, however, the needle has swung upwards as top management sought to communicate better with employees, work more cooperatively with unions and "more fully explain" challenges facing the Mint and the reasons for specific decisions, the report said.

Besides holding town hall meetings with employees, Mint executives visited all of the agency's facilities outside of Washington to hear and respond to employees' concerns.

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