Management

OMB employee dissatisfaction was looming even before the pandemic

While most federal agencies saw a boost to their employees’ satisfaction during the pandemic, the Office of Management and Budget experienced the opposite effect.

Those satisfied employees cited increased workplace flexibilities and a heightened importance of agency mission. But according to the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, OMB plummeted from sixth to last place among small agency rankings, and dropped nearly 22 points in the process.

Some elements of OMB’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results — which form the basis of the Best Places to Work rankings — fell precipitously from the year prior.

The agency went from 71.9 percent of employees feeling that they could safely disclose a suspected violation of a rule in 2019 to 40.3 percent believing the same in 2020. Employees also went from 73.4 percent confidence in their protection from health and safety hazards to 41.2 percent.

But the lowest scores for OMB in 2020 were also ones that had been in a nosedive well before the beginning of the pandemic: employee trust and respect for senior leadership.

The agency went from 39.3 percent of employees believing that their senior leaders exhibited honesty and integrity in 2019 to 22.2 percent in 2020. Scores for employee respect of senior leaders likewise fell from 39.9 percent to 23.2 percent.

By contrast, OMB employees were satisfied with the work they were doing and their immediate supervisors in 2020, ranking 73.8 points in the match of employee skills to agency mission and 88.6 points in the efficacy of their supervisors in the Best Places to Work rankings.

OMB employees are perhaps the most closely tied federal workers to presidential policy, as the agency’s mission is to coordinate budgetary requests and make sure that agency policies align with presidential intent. Its senior leaders, therefore, are chiefly responsible for making sure that the administration operates in concert with the president’s vision.

And workforce dissatisfaction is not simply a symptom of an election year, where OMB employees can soon expect to be turned in a different direction under a new administration. OMB received its highest Best Places to Work ranking to date in 2016, and the percent of employees that believed their senior leaders acted with integrity and who felt that they warranted a high level of respect were both in the 70s that year.

Several things happened in 2020 besides the pandemic that could explain the poor employee opinion of agency senior leaders.

Russell Vought took over as acting director of the agency in March 2020 after the departure of Mick Mulvaney and became the Senate-confirmed director in July, after having served as the deputy director of the agency since March 2018.

OMB under Vought opted not to publish the agency’s economic forecast — one of the agency’s major yearly documents — in the summer of 2020 due to the volatility of the markets as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vought was also behind the September memo to federal agencies to remove any training related to critical race theory for federal employees.

Additionally, the White House announced in October 2020 that it planned to create a new Schedule F classification for employees that work in a confidential, policy-determining, policymaking or policy-advocating capacity, which would remove those employees from the protections provided by the competitive service.

In mid-November, reports of an internal memo at OMB emerged showing that 88 percent of the agency’s employees would be reclassified under this new schedule.

Without the Schedule F requirement, approximately two-thirds of OMB employees are classified as career employees of some sort, while the remainder are hired under special schedules.

It’s unclear how much OMB employees knew about this reclassification when submitting their FEVS survey responses. The first round of surveys was sent to employees Sept. 14, and responses were open for six weeks after employees received the survey link. At minimum, OMB employees would have had until Oct. 26 to submit responses, just a few days after the Schedule F announcement.

If OMB received its survey links in the later second wave, it’s possible that participants may have known about the likelihood of their own reclassification before needing to submit responses.

In some ways, the lack of satisfaction with senior leadership at OMB, or any agency for that matter, is a problem that could be automatically resolved, as a new administration has brought new leaders into the agency whose popularity will be determined by the next round of FEVS surveys.

“Our entire leadership team is fully committed to supporting and engaging each member of the extraordinary team at OMB,” acting OMB Director Shalanda Young said in a statement to Federal Times.

“We remain laser-focused on building back the agency stronger than ever — drawing on the talents, expertise and strengths of our remarkable career colleagues; reinvigorating our important diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility work by partnering with our Employee Resource Groups; fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment; providing opportunities for our staff to come together in safe spaces to share their experiences; and much more. Those efforts are critical both to creating a culture of empowerment and respect at every level of the organization, and to ensuring that OMB continues to deliver results for all Americans.”

Young was confirmed by the Senate as deputy director of OMB in March, though President Joe Biden withdrew his choice for permanent director, Neera Tanden, that same month and has yet to submit a new nominee.

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