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Is OPM’s Employee Survey a Valuable Tool?


When the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey was announced in the spring, the Office of Personnel Management promised the results “on a rolling basis starting in August 2017.” That’s when OPM will begin to share data with agencies internally, the agency recently clarified to Government Executive. The public, apparently, will have to wait until the fall for the results. Normally the participation rate is just under 50 percent. This year is likely to be different.

It’s unfortunate that the government relies on a unique survey and a unique format for reporting the survey results. If it relied on the Gallup survey, for example, the comparisons with other employers would be a natural focus. As it is, the only comparisons are with results in prior years.

It’s also unfortunate that government did not in the past link survey results with performance metrics. It may be that those data do exist but are not made public. Gallup and others marketing surveys emphasize that high levels of engagement contribute to better performance. The evidence is solid and confirmed in a growing number of studies—highly engaged employees are more productive. Conversely it follows that performance would deteriorate when engagement scores fall.  

It’s the linkages to agency performance that provide guidance on the people management practices that need to change.  However, public reports do not suggest those linkages have been studied.

Just as Gallup analyses show companies with high engagement scores are more successful, any deterioration would have financial implications. In business, profits would be lower. For government, low engagement is a productivity concern.  

Studies on engagement focus on the advantages of a positive work experience. The message is that with strong leadership, engagement levels can be raised. Organizations that improve the work experience can expect improved performance. In the annual FEVS report, OPM is silent on how agencies benefit from improved engagement.

OPM’s Engagement Index

OPM has modified its approach to analyzing the survey results over the years. Today the focus is on an Engagement Index comprised of scores on three subfactors: “Leaders Lead,” “Supervisors,” and “Intrinsic Work Experience.” The questions in the Supervisors score are similar to those in Gallup surveys.

The Intrinsic Work Experience factor focuses on issues inherent in the work (e.g., feelings of personal accomplishment. Many federal employees chose their career path because of the satisfaction inherent in public service. Those in the Supervisors factor are “actionable,” to use OPM’s parlance, in that they involve day-to day behaviors that can be changed and improved.  Are agencies using the feedback effectively?

That shifts the focus to Leaders Lead and to five questions about how employees view their leaders and managers. Last year, only 41 percent of the respondents agreed their leaders “generate a high level of motivation and commitment.” Roughly half—52 percent—agreed that leaders “maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.” It will be interesting to see this year’s results.  

A core problem is that “engagement,” like love and beauty, is a construct that does not have a solid, empirically-based definition. Engagement is operationally defined by the survey questions. Unfortunately, the firms conducting the surveys do not agree on the practices that contribute to engagement. They also differ in how the results are reported.

An important distinction missed in all the surveys is the impact of policies over time. Motivation theories stress the importance of expectations. When desired behavior is recognized and rewarded, it’s likely to be repeated; when behavior is ignored or punished, it’s not repeated. When decisions are repeatedly negative, engagement scores go downhill. In high performance organizations leaders recognize the achievements of employees in a variety of ways.

That’s obviously relevant to the management of rewards, including promotions. It’s the basis of pay for performance. Where pay for performance is managed effectively, research shows it contributes to job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and trust in management. It’s highly unlikely that any organization with a static, step increase pay program can make that claim.

The General Schedule is clearly not an exception. The FEVS survey includes six or seven questions related to pay, recognition and rewards, and those scores are the lowest—below 40 percent respond positively across the questions. Only 34 percent agree that “promotions . . . are based on merit.” The same percentage agree that “differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way.”

Rewarding Performance

Salary management is a peripheral issue in the FEVS survey but the way the GS system has been managed for years has to adversely affect employee engagement. The Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act called for closing the pay gap, but it has slowly widened. The annual schedule increases have been consistently below the Pay Agent’s recommendations with Republican and Democratic presidents. On top of that, government critics regularly argue that federal pay is too high. It could hardly be worse.

Job security is another issue at the core of the employer-employee relationship that is not addressed in the FEVS questions. But with the announced plan to restructure and downsize government it’s solidly on the table. Job security influences employee commitment.

Government needs to do better. The thread that is central to the policies and practices associated with employee engagement is the way performance is managed. Effective performance management starts at the highest levels and cascades down. Managers and employees alike need to know what’s expected.  That’s both expected results and the understanding of how much autonomy employees have to address problems. Creativity and innovation need to be rewarded, not discouraged.

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney stated recently that “we're trying to figure out a way to make the government more responsive and more accountable, and that means taking care of the people who are doing a good job.” His statement suggests pay for performance is part of the plan. The possibility has been mentioned by several members of Congress as well.  

That is consistent with good government. However, the terms “responsive” and “accountable” suggest a culture where employees are empowered and encouraged to address problems. It’s common to follow employee surveys with focus groups to discuss the results. The groups would be great opportunities to discuss changes to raise engagement levels.  It’s also commonly recommended to not conduct surveys unless an organization is ready to act on what it finds. Somehow the song “Miles to Go” comes to mind.  

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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