The changing face of the federal workforce continues to evolve: waves of retirements, variations in employee satisfaction and even shifts in what drives people toward civil service. The most recent iteration of a comprehensive, annual survey of government personnel gives insight into how transforming demographics in the U.S. populace are impacting — and reflected in — the federal workforce.

The Office of Personnel Management Oct. 25 released the findings of its 13th annual survey soliciting opinions of federal employees about the running of their agencies. Started in 2002 as the Federal Human Capital Survey, the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey was renamed and administered every year beginning in 2010.

Federal employees are notified by email that they have been selected to voluntarily participate in the survey each year, and notifications are sent out in two waves over the course of a few months in late spring and early summer.

The survey is designed to provide actionable insights for both individual agencies and the government as a whole on areas that need to be improved in the federal workforce.

Though the number and types of questions federal employees are asked can vary from year to year, there are 16 questions that regulation requires to be included in the FEVS, known as the Annual Employee Survey items.

Those 16 questions are then divided into six categories dedicated to employee satisfaction to present an overall picture of the areas that federal employees are happy, or not, with their work within the government.

A brighter outlook

Federal employees by and large have an improved view of their service across all subject areas, though some — like agency reward systems and recognition of work quality — did not start out very high to begin with.

Agencies were most satisfied with opportunities to contribute to their agency’s mission, as well as with their overall work environments.

And 60 percent of employees responded positively when asked how satisfied they were overall with their organization.

(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)
(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)

“For us, if you had to pick one question that summarized the survey overall, it’s [number] 71, which is, ‘Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?’” said Steve Stebbins, DoD’s Office of Inspector General chief of staff, in an interview with Federal Times.

The DoD OIG achieved a strong improvement on that score over the past three years, going from 57.7 percent positive response in 2015 to 71.2 percent on the most recent survey.

But recognition of good work has long been a sore spot of the FEVS, though it has been steadily improving over the past few years. The Trump administration has targeted this problem area as part of its workforce reform efforts through proposals like changing the Federal Employee Retirement System to ease the transition between public- and private-sector employment and making it easier for agencies to fire poorly performing employees.

But these attempts have been met with vocal opposition, as unions and other federal employee groups characterized them as more of an attack on the civil service rather than an effort to improve the rewards system.

Nonprofits and think tanks have attempted to reason out how the civil service may need to change in coming years in the face of new technologies and a different outlook for work as a whole. Some offer some suggestions on improvement.

The National Academy of Public Administration suggested in its September 2018 report, “No Time to Wait Part Two,” that the position-based system be retired in favor of managing employees in flexible teams within an agency.

“In particular, this will require wrestling with the problem of horizontal equity — the instinct to treat every person in a similar position in precisely the same way — which too often creates layers of regulations that advance neither mission nor merit,” the report noted.

“More flexibility in achieving the mission while ensuring merit is an enormous challenge that will require fresh, keen insights.”

A report by the Partnership for Public Service and the Volker Alliance noted that the federal compensation and classification system, known as the General Schedule system, hasn’t changed in nearly 70 years. It’s designed more for clerical work than the diverse kinds of jobs currently found in federal service.

The NAPA report even suggested completely overhauling Title 5 of U.S. Code, which dictates the rules of federal employment and employee management.

(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)
(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)

But even those changes may not stop the turnover at some agencies.

In total just over 32 percent of survey respondents said that they planned on leaving their current jobs at other agencies, either to retire, get a job elsewhere in government or leave government work entirely.

The Army is likely to experience the largest employee turnover over the next year, with more than 42 percent of survey respondents reporting that they plan to move elsewhere, though a majority of those still plan to still work elsewhere in the federal government.

The Office of Management and Budget, on the other hand, is driving the largest percentage of its workforce out of public service, with nearly 15 percent of respondents saying that they plan to seek work outside government in the next year.

However, that number is down from 17 percent last year.

Fittingly, the Railroad Retirement Board reported the largest percentage of employees that plan to retire within the next year at 11.3 percent.

In total, more than 36,000 federal employees responded that they plan to retire in the next year, driving home the need to improve hiring practices with younger generations to replace retirement-age feds.

Nearly 30 percent of the federal employee population will be eligible for Social Security retirement within the next 12 years, according to OPM demographic data.

Millennial workers, who are now old enough to almost entirely have entered the full-time workforce and stand to replace retiring baby-boomers, currently make up just 21 percent of the federal workforce.

Increasing the sample size

Though the response rates for the 2018 FEVS were lower than previous years at only slightly more than 40 percent, the survey actually managed to gather responses from a larger grouping of employees than any year since 2012.

That’s because the FEVS was sent to nearly double the number of federal employees in 2018 than in most previous years, and was treated as a “census” survey, meaning that all federal employees that are eligible to participate were sent an email inviting them to do so.

Since 2012 the FEVS has been administered to full- and part-time, permanent, non-seasonal employees within the federal government. Prior to 2012, the surveys were less regular and administered only to full-time employees.

(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)
(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)

The number of employees working in the federal government has not fluctuated greatly between 2012 and 2018, with most years counting just over 2 million employees across the federal government. Roughly 1.8 million of those are full-time permanent employees.

The Department of Defense achieved the largest number of respondents in the federal government, with 182,115 out of its massive 607,027-person applicable workforce participating. The number constitutes a major upswing in involvement from the DoD, as the agency managed less than half that in 2017.

In fact, many agencies managed to double — and sometimes triple or quadruple — their responses from 2017, likely due to the decision to treat the survey as a census for all eligible employees, rather than a select group.

“The key element in improving participation is demonstrating year after year that you take the survey seriously, that you’re going to listen to the folks in the organization, identify some areas that you can improve and then take action to improve those areas,” said Stebbins.

“As people see over time that the survey matters, they’ll be more inclined to take the time to participate in the survey.”

The DoD OIG boasted a significant upswing in participation at 71.2 percent, an increase of more than 15 percentage points from 2017.

According to Stebbins, survey participation benefitted both from the OIG’s demonstrated commitment to making various improvements based on survey results and from its Employee Engagement Council’s decision to make a competition of answering the survey, with a trophy at stake for the highest participation.

The council, which was created in 2015 to communicate with employees and share best practices on how to improve employee experience, is also responsible for taking the yearly FEVS data and determining which areas hold the most promise for workplace improvement.

“Rather than coming out with a dozen initiatives and sort of scattering yourself widely, pick a smaller number that really matter and then just nail those,” said Stebbins, calling the FEVS scores “a mirror to help you see yourself.”

Also of note, 2018 marked the first year that the number and types of questions changed since 2012. For the past six years, the survey had always consisted of 98 questions broken down into 84 questions on employee experience and 14 on demographics.

(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)
(Philip Kightlinger/Staff)

But orchestrators of the 2018 FEVS opted to place additional weight on the demographic questions, increasing the number up to 16, and to delete or combine other regular questions on the survey that ultimately removed six items.

The 2018 FEVS introduced one new question for employees: whether or not they identified as transgender.

The concept is not exactly new to survey respondents.

Previous versions of the FEVS included an option for employees to identify as transgender as part of a question about sexuality, though experts often differentiate transgender individuals as part of gender identity as opposed to sexual orientation.

Many previous questions were also combined so that instead of asking whether employees participated in certain programs and then asking for their satisfaction, the 2018 survey simply combined both options into one question.