These are dark days for federal employees.
It is not just because of the looming threat of a government shutdown that has consumed our attention. It is because government programs and services have become the favored hostage to a new brand of reckless lawmakers bent on pursuing their agenda, whatever the consequences.
It is not just because public opinion polls show Americans’ trust in federal employees is dismally low and getting lower. It is because some government managers abuse their authorities — whether by spending exorbitant sums on training conferences; piling special burdens upon groups of certain political leanings seeking tax-exempt status; overreaching their authorities in spying on citizens; or providing excessive bonuses to undeserving executives — and those abuses overshadow the good work being done by hundreds of thousands of feds every day.
It is not just because federal employees have endured three straight years of pay freezes and, more recently, pay cuts in the form of furloughs. It is also because much of this hardship is driven by a sequester that should never have been allowed to take place.
It is not just because managing federal programs effectively is a growing challenge due to the lack of predictable budgets; severe restrictions on hiring, training and travel; and widespread leadership vacancies. It is also because there appears little hope that Congress will strike a long-term budget deal that would bring sorely needed stability to governance.
Looking at the retirement numbers, recent annual employee satisfaction survey results, and hearing from feds anecdotally, it appears clear the accumulated effect of these problems is demoralizing employees and prompting many to retire or leave rather than stick it out.
A demoralized and shrinking workforce can lead to worse problems: irreversible brain drains, critical skills gaps, productivity problems, and worsening performance — in short, a hollowing out of federal programs.
What is needed is attention to the problem.
Government leaders must engage their employees to discuss and address the challenges they face. They must demonstrate their appreciation for those who perform well in spite of those challenges. And they must carefully watch over key indicators — employee absences, performance metrics, retirement data, and skills gaps — to make sure their agencies don’t veer off course.
What is also needed is a Congress that becomes part of the solution in fixing what ails government rather than part of the problem.