Feds indicate mixed satisfaction on workforce survey

Federal employees were happier with health insurance benefits, access to resources and diversity efforts in 2008 than in 2006, but satisfaction fell in other areas including work-life balance, according to survey results released on Thursday by the Office of Personnel Management.

Performance management was another category in which the results of the 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey indicated weaknesses.

"We recognize that performance is still one of the issues that is identified as an area that needs work," said Nancy Kichak, OPM's associate director for human resources policy.

While 82 percent of the 210,000 employees from 83 agencies who participated in the survey said they were held accountable for achieving results on the job and 50 percent said they were satisfied with the recognition they received for doing good work, only 30 percent said performance differences were recognized in a meaningful way. Twenty-six percent reported a connection between performance and compensation, up slightly from 2006, when 22 percent of federal employees saw a connection between performance and pay.

Nancy Randa, OPM's deputy associate director for learning, executive resources and policy analysis, said part of the problem-- as revealed by a recent Merit Systems Protection Board study -- might be that employees lack faith in their managers' ability to evaluate employees equitably.

"It sounds like communication among managers and supervisors in the government may not be as positively viewed as it is in the private sector," Randa said. "That's something that's on our wavelength, and we're doing some work to ratchet up the competency level for supervisors and managers."

Less than half -- 48 percent -- of Federal Human Capital Survey respondents said they had a high level of respect for their agency's senior leaders. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said those results reflected poorly on the Bush administration.

"One of the key duties of senior management is to earn the respect and trust of front-line workers," Kelley said. "It is sad that so many top leaders in this administration seemingly have failed to do so."

Kichak said she also was concerned by a 3 percentage point dip in the federal employees who said they were supported in their efforts to achieve a work-life balance. That percentage fell from 78 percent in 2006 to 75 percent in 2008. She attributed the decrease in part to interest in work-life balance legislation that did not pass. For example, the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act stalled in the Senate in 2008.

"We need to look into [the results], but we still think the federal government is a good place to work if you care about that kind of balance," Kichak said.

But amid those concerns, OPM noted increased employee satisfaction with a wide range of issues. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they were satisfied with health insurance benefits, compared to 58 percent in 2006. Seventy-nine percent said they had access to online learning and training at their desks, up from 75 percent in 2006.

The percentage of employees who said they had adequate resources to do their jobs rose as well, from 48 percent in 2006 to 51 percent in 2008. But NTEU's Kelley said that level of progress was inadequate.

Two questions on diversity made the top 10 list of areas where federal employees reported the most improvement. Fifty-seven percent of employees said their supervisors and team leaders were invested in recruiting a broadly representative workforce, up from 54 percent in 2006. Sixty percent said their agency's policies and programs promoted diversity, an increase of 3 percentage points from 2006.

Kichak also noted that 69 percent of respondents to the survey, which was conducted in August and September just before the economy began its sharp decline, said they had no plans to leave their agency. Eighteen percent of those who did plan to leave hoped to find work elsewhere in the federal government.

To provide a broad portrait of how individual departments improved during the past two years, OPM divided the survey results into four indices: leadership and knowledge management, results-oriented performance culture, talent management, and job satisfaction.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had the highest index scores in the leadership and knowledge management, talent management, and job satisfaction categories, and finished second to the National Science Foundation in results-oriented performance. NSF scored second in leadership and knowledge management and in talent management. The Office of Management and Budget received the second-highest score for job satisfaction.

The Homeland Security Department, frequently criticized for its personnel policies, made the top 10 lists for improvement in every index category. The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency also made substantial strides, getting on all four top 10 lists for both performance and improvement.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which has tried to organize workers in DHS' Transportation Security Administration, said the department-level ratings were overly broad and agency-level ratings -- due to be released later in 2009 -- would provide a more accurate assessment of employee morale.

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