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The most overstretched agencies, according to feds

Mar. 18, 2013 - 07:35AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
National Park Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees are among those most dissatisfied with their workloads.
National Park Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees are among those most dissatisfied with their workloads. (GNS)

Minja Kamatovic has seen her workload swell as colleagues retire and their positions remain unfilled.

Her agency, the Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency, which oversees federal crop insurance programs, has also slashed its training and information technology budgets, making it harder for employees to develop their skills. The Risk Management Agency’s budget dropped from $80 million in 2011 to $75 million last year, even as the amount of insurance the agency provides held steady. Most recently, the sequester — across-the-board budget cuts that began March 1 — will slice an additional $4 million off its budget this year.

The situation “has placed a lot more stress on employees,” said Kamatovic, an economist.

Many other agencies are in the same boat, according to responses from the latest governmentwide employee satisfaction survey, analyzed by Federal Times.

See the survey here.

Most of the agencies that ranked in the bottom 25 in the eyes of their employees as being overstretched are in the Agriculture, Homeland Security, Interior, Education and Commerce departments, according to the data.

They include numerous larger agencies, such as Interior’s National Park Service, DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Veterans Affairs Department’s Veterans Benefits Administration. They also include smaller agencies, such as Interior’s office of the solicitor and DHS’ intelligence and analysis division.

Almost 690,000 employees from 292 agencies filled out the survey, by far the biggest response rate ever seen for that survey.

To compile its list of most overstretched agencies, Federal Times examined responses to two questions in the Office of Personnel Management‘s 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. One question asked employees whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “I have sufficient resources (for example, people, materials, budget) to get my job done.” The other asked whether employees agree or disagree with the statement, “My workload is reasonable.”

How we calculated the list

Employees at some of these agencies, interviewed by Federal Times, are worried the sequester will only make their problems worse.

Kamatovic said employees at her agency feel lucky they won’t be furloughed even as morale suffers from repeated budget cuts.

Workloads for employees at Voice of America have almost quadrupled over the last few years, said Tim Shambles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, which represents VOA employees. Voice of America, also among the 25 lowest-ranked agencies, is a federally run overseas news service. Employees used to work primarily in radio, but now they are expected to contribute to television, the Internet and social media.

“In these times, we are told to do more with less, which means not only [less] money, it means [less] staff,” Shambles said.

On top of a budget decrease from $208 million in 2010 to $206 million in 2012, the administration proposed a $17 million cut for 2013. At the same time, competition from international media in China and elsewhere is increasing, said Kyle King, spokesman for Voice of America.

“These kinds of budget pressures create a climate of uncertainty that can impact morale in a negative way,” King said.

The sequester will force the agency to freeze hiring starting April 1 and delay upgrades to its technical systems, he said.

Eddie Eitches, president of AFGE Council 222 of Housing and Urban Development Locals, said heavy workloads at HUD are a growing problem. HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity and Office of Community Planning and Development ranked among the bottom 25 agencies in Federal Times’ analysis.

To deal with sequester cuts, HUD plans to shut down entirely for seven days between May and August as it furloughs its entire 9,100-person workforce.

Eitches said morale is understandably low as agencies continue to make budget cuts. “We are trying to do the best we can do, and sequestration will only make it worse,” he said.

The National Park Service also is struggling under reduced budgets and increased workloads, and the agency is doing what it can to address employee concerns, agency spokesman Jeffrey Olson said.

The park service’s budget was cut by nearly $32 million to $2.58 billion in 2012, and it eliminated about 144 positions. The sequester cuts another $153 million from the budget.

“Our employees are passionate about our mission and aware that there are not enough resources to accomplish everything we wish to do,” Olson said. In the past, employees responded to budget cuts with “unwavering commitment to the mission,” he said.

An employee at Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said training and travel were the first areas cut this year. The sequester is cutting an additional $74 million from this year’s budget.

The employee said she and each of her co-workers do the jobs of multiple people, and it takes the agency more than six months to fill a vacancy. Her office has more than 10 vacancies, and more employees are set to retire this year.

Similarly, employees at DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Protection and Programs Directorate, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and Office of Science and Technology gave their agencies low marks in terms of workloads and access to resources.

DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said officials take employees’ responses seriously and try to find ways to improve. But the sequester will limit employee training and delay plans to expand the workforce.

“While we continue to preserve our frontline priorities as best we can, no amount of planning can mitigate the negative effects of sequestration,” Catron said.

Among agencies where employees have highly positive things to say about their workloads is NASA. NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss., reviews employee workloads every month, said Dorsie Jones, manager in the office of human capital at Stennis. If the workload becomes too burdensome, Stennis partners with other NASA centers.

Stennis also encourages employees to suggest ways to solve workplace problems or technology issues, and it has created an employee committee to suggest ideas.

So what should overstretched agencies do about the problem?

Robert Tobias, director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University, said agencies have already cut back as much as possible in the face of cuts, furloughs and hiring freezes.

Political appointees and federal officials need to discuss permanent program cuts and craft realistic priorities, he said. “The answer is not trying to squeeze more out of federal employees over the longer term.”

Agencies need to acknowledge that they can’t do everything they used to do on reduced budgets. “At a certain point you can’t do more with less, you have to do less with less,” Tobias said.

Managers also need to have honest discussions with their employees and rework goals to reflect what is possible, he said. Managers also must show their employees they understand how budget cuts affect their work and to adjust duties and expectations accordingly.

“If I am ignoring those issues I can’t help my employees get through this very terrible time,” Tobias said.

Henry Romero, a former Office of Personnel Management executive and senior adviser at government consultant Federal Management Partners, agreed that employees and agencies are in “mission overload” and should refocus their funds and efforts on core missions.

“They are trying to do everything that might be expected of them and yet the reality is that there are not enough resources to do everything well,” Romero said.

He said it will require some real analysis to determine what programs agencies should drop. In short, he said, it is more important to do core missions well then run more programs badly.

Managers and employees should identify the most important aspects to their jobs and limit their activities to provide better service in those areas, he said.

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