The federal workforce’s engagement in their jobs dipped only slightly in 2019, despite a record-breaking government shutdown to start out the year, but some agency subcomponents fared worse than others.

The Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2019 rankings, based on the results of the 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, found that feds scored an average 61.7 points out of 100 in engagement, a .5 point drop from the previous year.

“Our country is blessed with an extraordinary and highly resilient government workforce. This year’s engagement dropped modestly despite a tumultuous time for our nation’s public servants — a time when about 800,000 of the 2 million federal employees were affected by a lengthy government shutdown, when there were a number of critical leadership vacancies across the government, and as many agencies had to deal with a variety of political headwinds,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, in a news release.

The federal government still consistently lags behind the private sector’s 77 average engagement score.

According to Danny Werfel, leader of the Public Sector practice in North America at The Boston Consulting Group — which sponsored the study — and a former government employee, some of that difference stems from the private sector’s enhanced ability to show employees what their career trajectory will look like and provide training and support for career enhancement.

But Werfel noted that the government is not a lost cause in competing with the private sector, as some agencies scored well above that average, such as NASA’s 81.5, the highest of any large agency.

“One area where the public sector ranks higher than the private sector very consistently is in the connection that the employee has to the mission,” said Werfel.

“I know NASA usually scores very highly in these things, and it’s a credit to them, and the people there are very excited about the mission at NASA, and they should be. But I think that the data would show that employees are just as passionate about air safety at the Transportation Department, just as excited about food safety at FDA, just as excited about air quality at EPA, the list goes on and on. And that’s an important lever that leaders have to help close the gap and drive up morale.”

Some of the agencies and departments with the biggest losses from 2018 to 2019 also experienced major upheavals this year, such as the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which were relocated from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.

Between 2018 and this year, the ERS dropped over 30 points from 173rd place to 415th in the agency subcomponent rankings. NIFA dropped more than 24 points from 396th to 419th place in that same time.

The Bureau of Land Management, which also experienced a relocation in 2019, dropped from 291st place last year to 311th this year.

“When you go through a reorganization, or reassignment or relocation, these are very challenging undertakings, and it’s important that the employees are communicated with [and] feel as empowered as they can be during these types of changes,” said Werfel.

“Typically the stress of that much change and uncertainty … it does place a lot of strain on the employees. And that’s not surprising, it’s a lot of life change, and as a result the engagement scores can go down."

Drastic drops in engagement are not a foregone conclusion, according to Werfel, as agencies that work hard to engage with their workforce throughout the process can make employees feel like the transition will dramatically improve their work toward the agency’s mission, but the government doesn’t reorganize often, meaning that there is no playbook of how to do it exactly right.

2019 also marked a concerted push by the Trump administration to implement new employee management policies that would make it easier to deal with poor-performing federal employees, but the Office of Personnel Management subcomponents responsible for coordinating such efforts with other agencies dropped noticeably in the rankings.

The Merit System Accountability and Compliance office, which provides oversight of agency HR programs and ensures their compliance with federal policy and regulation, fell nearly 34 points from 95th place to 412th between 2018 and 2019.

OPM’s Healthcare and Insurance office, Employee Services and Office of Inspector General also saw noticeable drops from the previous year, whereas departments like the Office of the Chief Information Officer, HR Solutions and Retirement Services offices all saw improvements.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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