Small Agency Takes Heat for Steep Drop in Employee Satisfaction Scores

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said two troubling areas in the survey results concern employee involvement and empowerment and management leadership. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said two troubling areas in the survey results concern employee involvement and empowerment and management leadership. Susan Walsh/AP

The chairman of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Thursday grilled the managing director of the Surface Transportation Board about the agency’s precipitous drop in scores on the annual survey of federal employees’ job satisfaction.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., wanted answers about what caused the agency, which regulates the nation’s railroads and carriers, to fall from first place in the small agency category on the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s rankings of the best places to work in government in 2014 to 16th—out of 29 departments—in last year’s rankings. The Partnership’s rankings are based on employee responses to the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Surface Transportation Board Executive Director Lee Gardner attributed the drop in ranking to several factors: changes in the agency’s chairmanship position in recent years, years of constrained resources coupled with expanded responsibilities, and a pending decision from the General Services Administration on whether the department will relocate.

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But Meadows argued during the Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing that problems at  STB must be more systemic to produce such pronounced decreases in scores. In the 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the agency received an employee engagement index of 71, compared to a score of 87 in 2014.

“I guess the two troubling areas [within the survey] are more about employee involvement and empowerment and management leadership,” Meadows said. “Those two categories are not as much about financial or fiscal restraints as they are about management initiatives. So help me explain why we went backwards on that?”

“We’re very concerned about the decline,” Gardner responded. “We were very surprised.”

“That concerns me even more,” Meadows said. “If you’re surprised by the results, that shows we have a lack of understanding of the rank and file.”

Gardner said leadership at the STB has increased communication and information sharing and solicited suggestions from staff since the survey results were released last year. But Meadows insisted Gardner find new ways to engage employees outside of merely “talking” to them.

“When scores like this are dropping, it has to do with promotions, bonuses and, when it really comes down to it, are they feeling empowered?” Meadows said. “[Have] you done anything with their suggestions? What have you done, other than talking?”

“We’ve taken suggestions, but we haven’t implemented any yet,” Gardner said.

“Well that’s a problem, Mr. Gardner,” Meadows said. “When you get information and do nothing with it, then they think their opinion doesn’t matter.”

Meadows instructed Gardner to return to the subcommittee within 45 days with a plan to address employee engagement at the STB.

The hearing focused not just on STB but on other agencies with either marked improvements or steep declines in Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores. Subcommittee members gave kudos to officials at the Homeland Security Department for the agency’s three point increase in its employee engagement score—the biggest increase in score among very large agencies—although they noted the agency still has a lot of work to do to climb from the bottom of the overall rankings.

And Roberta Jeanquart, chief human capital officer for the Agriculture Department, told the subcommittee how a combination of improved communication, enhanced performance management and initiatives like encouraging telework led to a two point increase in the department’s score, the second highest improvement among very large agencies.

“To further contribute to employee development, we launched a USDA-wide mentoring portal and established mentoring programs in all of our sub-component offices,” Jeanquart said. “We also created a 360-degree performance assessment program, where [in addition to standard performance reviews], managers, supervisors and executives all get feedback from employees, stakeholders, peers and leadership as well.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who serves as ranking member on the subcommittee, applauded Agriculture’s adoption of initiatives to improve employees’ work-life balance.

“I’ve always thought that productivity at the end of the day is what I care about most,” Connolly said. “If your job is to write proposals, and you’re getting 90 percent ‘hit rates,’ I don’t care if you do it in your PJs while watching soap operas at home. There’s a bottom line to what we do, and I hope we’re looking at what matters, not the ephemeral. Whether I’m there from 9 to 5 is a way to get to productivity, but it’s not a substitute for productivity.”

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