Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said the oversight subcommittee he chairs will make an effort to improve relations with federal employees.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said the oversight subcommittee he chairs will make an effort to improve relations with federal employees. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Lawmakers in Both Parties Promise to Be Nicer to Feds

But kinder rhetoric is only one step on a long road to boosting employee morale.

Lawmakers vowed to change their rhetoric to show their appreciation for the federal workforce during a congressional hearing on Thursday on low employee morale.  

Representatives from agencies large and small -- including the Homeland Security Department, National Archives and Records Administration, and Chemical Safety Board -- testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations subcommittee as part of a discussion of the worst places to work in the federal government. The agencies have ranked among those with the lowest morale and engagement levels over the past several years, but said efforts were under way to boost their employees’ work experiences.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the subcommittee, said the hearing would be part of an ongoing effort to improve relations between Congress and the federal workforce, as well as employees and their agencies.

“Ranking member [Gerry Connolly, D-Va.] and I believe focusing on the great workforce that we have is critical,” Meadows said. “We’ve agreed to go out and meet with the rank and file on a regular basis to hear from them so…the message is out there today there is at least one Democrat and Republican willing to look at what matters most to the hundreds of thousands of federal workforce employees that serve our public every day.”

Meadows noted that despite dips in morale across government in recent years, employees remain committed to the missions of their agencies. Pointing to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, Meadows said 90 percent of feds were “willing to put in the extra effort necessary to get the job done,” which he added was an “incredible number.”

The Government Accountability Office released a report in advance of the hearing to help struggling agencies improve their employees’ engagement. GAO Director of Strategic Issues Robert Goldenkoff told the panel most of the issues had to be addressed at the agency level rather than legislatively, though situations like the government shutdown “are not helpful.”

Agency leadership must create a culture of engagement, Goldenkoff said, which must cascade down to the front-line supervisor and the “cubicle level” to generate “micro-cultures of engagement.” Specific suggestions from GAO included:

  • Inclusive work environments
  • Employee involvement in agency decisions
  • Work-life balance
  • Constructive performance conversations
  • Communication from management
  • Career development and training opportunities

Ultimately, Goldenkoff and lawmakers agreed, the priority should be to improve the services delivered to the American public.

“If a talented workforce is the engine of productivity and mission accomplishment,” Goldenkoff said, “then a workplace that fosters high levels of employee engagement helps power that engine.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said the federal workforce has been under a barrage of attacks from Congress, both rhetorically and legislatively.

“It’s a wonder there’s anything approaching good morale,” Norton said. Catherine Emerson, the DHS chief human capital officer, agreed that sequestration and other budget cuts, shutdown threats, furloughs and pay freezes have all contributed to the low morale of the agency’s workforce. She added, however, that Secretary Jeh Johnson was committed to improving engagement.

To demonstrate that commitment, Johnson addressed subcommittee members privately prior to the hearing to inform them of his specific engagement efforts.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said DHS was doing great work and should have the best morale of any federal agency.

“You’re the most important department in the entire government,” Maloney told Emerson. “If we can't protect our president, if we can’t protect our employees, we can’t do anything,” she said. The longtime federal employee advocate added, however, that Congress has a tendency toward “vilifying” public servants.

“I think we have a responsibility in Congress,” she said of the efforts to improve morale, “because the way we treat the people nominated for positions and the people working in government is disgraceful.”

One day after House Republicans failed in an effort to fire federal workers seriously delinquent on their taxes, Meadows said Thursday’s hearing marked a turning point.

“Today is the start of changing that,” Meadows told Maloney.

Agency representatives made clear kinder words would not solve all of their problems. CSB’s Manuel Erlich and Archivist David Ferriero said they do not have enough employees to fulfill their agencies’ responsibilities. While the number of records in need of archiving has tripled in recent years, Ferriero said, staffing levels at NARA have been reduced.

Still, all the witnesses vowed to create or continue using specific metrics to track engagement levels, and promised improvements.

“I’m hopeful the three of you won’t be on this list [next year],” Meadows said, “and it will be somebody else we bring in.”