Katherine Archuleta, OPM's newly installed director, pressed HR executives for ideas on how to 'do more with less.' (Mike Morones / Staff)
Sequester-related budget cuts. Hiring restrictions. A continuing freeze on pay rates.
For the federal workforce, those forces combined to produce sharp drops in key job satisfaction indicators, according to the latest soundings by the Office of Personnel Management.
Most worrisome to managers, perhaps, was a decline in the area of mission accomplishment: Of almost 377,000 respondents, well under half said they have the people, funding and other resources needed to do their jobs. That was down sharply from both last year and 2010.
“That’s a big one,” Justin Johnson, OPM’s deputy chief of staff, told dozens of senior human capital executives at a meeting last week. “We’ve got to figure out how to use our limited sources as efficiently as possible to mitigate that.”
Of 77 areas measured by the voluntary survey, 53 showed declines in satisfaction and most of the remainder were flat, according to an OPM summary. The downticks were generally only one or two percentage points, but they continued a trend underway for several years. This year’s survey was taken between April and June as the across-the-board sequester cuts — often accompanied by unpaid furloughs — were taking effect.
With funding outside of agencies’ control, Johnson urged more emphasis on keeping employees engaged and committed to their jobs. Commitment “keeps you feeling like what you’re doing is making a difference,” he said at last week’s annual public meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council.
At Johnson’s prompting, more than a half-dozen agency officials outlined what they are doing to further boost workforce involvement.
“We try to tell people, ‘Hey, we can’t control that you’re not getting a pay raise ... but what can we do to keep you invested in your job?’ ” said Miriam Cohen, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chief human capital officer. At the NRC, she said, those efforts include executive leadership seminars to focus on conflict resolution and problem-solving as well as keeping tabs on workplace bullying and other problems that may result from the stress of tough times.
The Agriculture Department is working closely with its unions to get their input before decisions are made, said CHCO William Milton, while the Justice Department has held focus groups to get staff feedback on the survey results and begun a mentoring program aimed at low- and medium-grade employees, according to its deputy CHCO, Terence Cook.
Those examples drew praise from Katherine Archuleta, OPM’s newly installed director, who quickly created an advisory group on sharing ideas across government.
“I want to learn from you about how we can help,” she said. Although more than 90 percent of respondents said they are constantly looking for ways to do their jobs better and are willing to put in extra effort, the overall survey results are “cause for concern,” Archuleta said in a preface to the report.
At last week’s meeting, Archuleta also told the CHCOs that she will be looking to them for ideas on “how we can do more with less” and make systems run more smoothly.
Her tone contrasted with the impassioned warning delivered in March by her predecessor, John Berry, that the government risks becoming unable to recruit and retain a qualified workforce when it keeps freezing employees’ pay, cutting their benefits and publicly denigrating them.
“I don’t know what straw breaks the camel’s back,” Berry said at a labor-mangement conference. “But I can tell you this: We are close to the edge of the cliff.”
Predictably another big signal of discontent in this year’s findings centered around compensation. In the third year of a freeze on federal pay scales, just over half of those surveyed said they were satisfied with their pay, down almost 20 percent since 2010.
Less than one-fifth thought that pay raises depend on how well employees do their jobs, also a marked drop in the last few years. There were indications that cutbacks in other areas are taking a toll.
Also falling, for example, was the percentage of respondents who believe that agencies assessed their training needs.