Howard Risher is a consultant and writer on federal pay and performance issues. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and is the author of 'Planning Wage and Salary Programs.' ()
Last week the ice storm hit my county very hard. Power was out for a few days. When it was restored I was still without TV and Internet. My wife and I pulled out old movies and watched several including Titanic.
If you’ve seen the movie, you will recall the scenes toward the end when the band keeps playing as the ship sinks. As I watched, I thought of the efforts by the Partnership for Public Service and others to maintain the image that government is a good place to work.
If there were an award for the ‘worst place to work’, federal agencies would certainly be in the running. In my more than 40 years of consulting, I have never known of an employer that hoped to stay in business and mistreated its employees this badly -- and with no signs of a turnaround.
There have been reports of poor morale, but that is certainly not news. That’s like someone stuck in the snow listening to a radio report warning of snow.
OPM’s annual employee surveys show a steady decline in employee satisfaction. But frankly, far too many of the questions it asks are almost inconsequential at this stage. If I were in charge of revitalizing the workforce, and concerned about rebuilding public support, I’d delete questions about vacation time and life insurance, which are unrelated to good government.
The following questions are part of a longer survey questionnaire that will soon be used to identify the best places to work in state and local government. Public employers are no different than others. There is solid evidence that investing in increasing – not degrading – worker engagement levels pays off with higher performance. The many surveys to identify the best places to work across industry sectors consistently show the best are more successful.
I would be reluctant to see how federal employees respond to these statements:
1. I believe my pay is fair for the work I do.
2. Managers are accountable for initiating the steps to help poor performers improve.
3. I have the information, supplies and other resources I need to do my work.
4. I have had adequate training to develop the knowledge and skills I need to do my job.
5. Now that the recession appears to be over, I feel my job is secure.
6. I feel empowered to tackle problems as they happen without checking first with my manager.
7. I am comfortable with my usual workload. It keeps me busy but not stressed.
8. Our managers are good at recognizing and congratulating people for accomplishments.
9. My co-workers and I are frequently asked for our input in surveys and focus groups.
10. The organization has hired well qualified people recently.
The surprising part is that no one in government seems willing to advocate policy changes that would reverse the decline. If anything, Congress has recently threatened actions that would exacerbate the morale problem. This apparently is a time for punishment.
In fairness, a number of the workforce problems have been allowed to fester for years. Ineffective performance management, bias and favoritism in granting bonuses, loose management of overtime and ignoring poor performers are all longstanding management problems that need to be addressed.
As a taxpayer, I’d like to have a megaphone to emphasize a message to all elected officials: It’s well documented that effective workforce management pays off. Engaged, empowered and talented employees are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. Everything accomplished by government is attributable to employee efforts. Even the best technology needs capable people to make it productive.
Conversely, poor morale has a cost and when it’s allowed to deteriorate the cost escalates. Having disgruntled employees quit triggers a loss of knowledge but when they stay on the job it can be far more costly. The least qualified are often the most frustrated and angry because their failure to find a job outside of government that pays as well makes them feel trapped. They may show up every day, put in their time, but as Gallup’s research has repeatedly shown, angry workers – Gallup’s phrase is “actively disengaged” – are not only less productive, they are often destructive.
Surveys show the public’s support for government has declined badly. That’s outside of my expertise, but I am convinced that the failure to disprove the repeated studies showing federal employees are paid more than workers in other sectors has contributed to the problem. The critics have been brutal. This is by far the worst time to be a federal employee that I have seen during my career.
In the long run, the most important cost is the damage to the federal brand as an employer. With unemployment still relatively high, there are always people who need a job. This, however, is now a time when businesses are adding staff in high demand knowledge occupations -- and willing to pay premium salaries to hire the best qualified. It is almost inconceivable that talented job candidates will consider a federal career.
A new president will not take office for three years. Regardless of who is elected, the situation will not be reversed overnight. I may be wrong but I am unaware of anyone in government who has the credentials to take the lead in developing the strategy to turn this massive ship in the right direction. Putting on that taxpayer hat again, the turnaround cannot wait.