Winning Over the Workers

Agencies are gaining the trust of the American people. If only they could say the same for their own employees.

Early this year, senior officials across the federal government received some interesting survey data about their performance. One group of people gave fairly positive feedback, saying that they understood agencies' missions and believed, for the most part, that the agencies were meeting them.

But another group gave senior federal officials low marks for honesty, integrity and aptitude for evaluating progress toward meeting key goals.

The interesting thing? The first group was the American public, as reflected in a poll by Harris Interactive. The second was the employees of agencies themselves.

The Harris survey, which was the latest in a series dating back to 2000, attempts to assess what Americans think of a select group of agencies. It turned out that 12 of 13 agencies got positive ratings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention topped the list, with 90 percent of respondents saying they understood what the agency does and 84 percent giving it positive marks. Others on the list with approval ratings of 70 percent or higher included the Federal Aviation Administration (78 percent), the National Institutes of Health (75 percent), the FBI (74 percent), the Agriculture Department (73 percent), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (71 percent).

At the other end of the spectrum was the Social Security Administration, with only a 40 percent positive rating, down from 51 percent in 2004 and 60 percent in 2001. (The agency's reputation among the under-50 set is plummeting.) Every other agency won the approval of more than 50 percent of respondents-even the much maligned Internal Revenue Service.

How does that compare with what federal employees thought? In its Federal Human Capital Survey, the Office of Personnel Management divided questions into four categories: job satisfaction, leadership and knowledge management, results-oriented performance culture, and talent management. Here's the list of agencies that scored well in all four: NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Office of Management and Budget. Others that scored highly in multiple categories included the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the General Services Administration and the National Credit Union Association.

There's not a lot of overlap between that list and the Harris list. And in at least one case, Americans and federal employees had nearly opposite impressions of an agency's operations. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, OPM's data showed that trust in senior leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was dropping, as was the percentage of employees who would recommend the agency as a place to work.

CDC chief Julie Gerberding made little effort to sugar- coat the results. In an e-mail to employees, she said, "Leaders, managers, supervisors and team leaders in every part of CDC can and will do better in supporting your ongoing incredible success. . . . Some may be tempted to 'spin' the information from this survey in either a positive way or a negative way, or claim that it is 'outdated,' 'not representative,' 'not scientific' or 'incomplete,' but I'd like to set aside those concerns. I believe we should just take it at face value." Like the CDC, the Homeland Security Department saw a disconnect between internal and external views of its operations. In the Harris survey, 56 percent of Americans said DHS was doing at least a pretty good job. But the department came out at or near the bottom in each of OPM's four categories.

Like Gerberding, DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson decided it was time to eat some crow. In an e-mail to employees, he acknowledged that the agency received "low marks in basic supervision, management and leadership." He assured employees that "starting at the top, the leadership team across DHS is committed to address the underlying reasons for DHS employee dissatisfaction and suggestions for improvement."

Of course, officials have made such promises before. Whether or not leaders like Gerberding and Jackson actually follow through on their promises will determine whether their agencies will rise in the esteem of the people who know them best: their own employees.

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