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Why does OPM want to make the results of its employee survey look like bad news?

More than 90 percent of federal employees believe they do important work, and more than 80 percent enjoy what they do. Almost two-thirds would recommend their organization as a good place to work, a number that is on the rise.

So say the results of the 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey released by the Office of Personnel Management in May. And those figures are just the beginning. Nearly three-fourths of employees surveyed said they and their co-workers have the proper knowledge and skills to get government's business done. Sixty percent or more of workers said they have real opportunities to develop their skills, get the training they need to do their jobs (more than 70 percent have access to online education systems) and are supported by their supervisors in gaining new expertise.

Sounds like cause for celebration, right? Not if you're the Bush administration and OPM. In releasing the survey, OPM's acting director, Dan G. Blair, acknowledged that it showed employees' commitment to public service, but then went straight to the bad news. The study, he said, indicated a "strong perception that excellent performance is not properly recognized and that action is not taken against poor performers." Only a little more than one-fourth of employees said managers at their agencies take appropriate steps to deal with lousy workers, and less than a third said differences in performance on the job are recognized in a meaningful way.

As far as the administration is concerned, those responses constitute an endorsement of its push to implement a governmentwide civil service reform plan that seeks to strengthen the link between pay and performance and give federal managers more flexibility in disciplining or firing incompetent workers. But a closer look at the survey results indicates there are reasons to be skeptical of this claim.

The data indicate that the percentage of employees who have positive things to say about the government's performance culture is on the rise. While only 27.4 percent of employees agree that steps are taken to deal with poor performers who cannot or will not improve, that's up from 24.9 percent in 2002. And the number of workers who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that "high-performing employees in my work unit are recognized or rewarded on a timely basis" went up from 40 percent in 2002 to 42.6 percent last year.

Employees show high and rising levels of satisfaction with their own performance reviews. More than 66 percent said their appraisals fairly reflected their performance, up from 64 percent in 2002.

In fact, the survey shows that employees have as much of a problem with their political leaders as they do with the slacker in the cubicle down the hall. Or, as OPM's report on the results of the survey delicately puts it, workers apparently have "reservations about the leadership of top officials."

Indeed. Less than half the workers agreed with the statement, "I have a high level of respect for my organization's senior leaders." Only 37 percent said those leaders "generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce."

Blair said the survey showed that "federal agencies have more work to do to increase employees' confidence in the leadership they receive." But it seems fairly clear that it's political employees, not front-line managers and supervisors, who bear most of that responsibility. More than 65 percent of employees thought their immediate supervisors are doing a good job (up from 61 percent in 2002). Majorities also agreed that their direct bosses support a balance between work and family, provide opportunities to develop leadership, work well with diverse groups of employees, communicate goals and priorities, make constructive suggestions for improving job performance and do not tolerate prohibited personnel practices.

As administration officials trumpet their civil service reform effort as a response to employee demands for change in the government's performance management culture, they also might want to take a long, hard look at what federal workers are trying to tell them about their own leadership.

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