Leaders of the Chemical Safety Board, a small independent federal agency, have touted dramatic improvements in the agency’s results in this year’s edition of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. But some employees are saying they felt pressured to improve their ratings out of fear that Congress would eliminate the board if its scores remained low.
The FEVS results, released last week, were highly positive. CSB’s score on employee satisfaction rose by 22 points, for example. That was the biggest increase among agencies with fewer than 1,000 employees. The 89 percent response rate to the survey among CSB’s 43 employees was much higher than the federal average.
But an anonymous complaint filed this week with the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general, the Office of Personnel Management’s FEVS staff and its IG, and the Office of Special Counsel, charges that CSB senior adviser Tom Zoeller made statements earlier this year causing employees to fear for their jobs if survey scores didn’t rise. Zoeller spoke shortly after President Trump released a budget proposal in March that included CSB on a list of 19 agencies he would seek to abolish.
The employee who filed the complaint corresponded with Government Executive by email on condition of anonymity, and said the survey results “are highly skewed and due to pressure placed on staff.”
The employee described a staff meeting last spring conducted by Zoeller in which the adviser said he had been informed by congressional staffers that if CSB's survey results did not significantly improve, the agency might be eliminated. The CSB staff “took this as a direct threat to our jobs,” the employee said. “Mr. Zoeller never said we had to increase the scores, or that agency management would retaliate against us. He framed the matter as one where congressional committees would simply abolish the agency.”
Another employee, who was present at the meeting and also requested anonymity to communicate with Government Executive, also reported feeling pressure to improve scores as a result of the meeting.
But CSB Chairperson Vanessa Sutherland challenged that interpretation, saying the rising employee viewpoint survey scores were the result of a concerted effort to improve operations at the agency.
“The FEVS scores are extremely important to the CSB and we took a significant effort to review our previous scores and challenged ourselves on how to improve the agency’s effectiveness, productivity and compliance,” Sutherland said in a statement posted on the agency’s website. “With a small but dedicated staff I am certain we can continue to do the great work that we have become known for while all the while improving internally.”
“We had extremely low scores in the survey, so there was really no place to go but up,” Sutherland said in an interview with Government Executive this week, noting that her agency’s scores last year also showed an uptick.
Sutherland attributed the rising scores in part to recent changes, including new board members, new staff members, and “management-focused morale initiatives” such as more frequent meetings and an internal newsletter. An ongoing committee for workplace improvement, an employee code of conduct, and a strategic effort to improve governance were also factors, she said. “We have tried to empower employees to report things that are unacceptable or warrant further review,” she added. “I don’t think anyone at CSB is afraid of transparency and being open and candid.”
Sutherland denied seeking to influence employee responses to the survey. “I wasn’t saying you have to be happy, and no one was told how to vote in the anonymous survey, and I had no way to know who filled it out,” she said.
But Sutherland acknowledged that at times she “had to be the bearer of bad news.” If the executive branch “wants to terminate us, I told [the staff] they will look at our deployments, our investigative reports, how we’re performing our mission, morale, our recommendations status, and, lastly, our governance issue.” If the agency wants to justify its $11 million budget, Sutherland said, “I told the staff we’d have to work on those things. We can’t be caught off guard.”
The CSB, which deploys teams to investigate and report on the aftermath of chemical accidents, has been troubled for several years by congressional investigations into previous leaders’ communication practices, divisive board tactics, and accusations of withholding documents from inspectors general. It has been on a reform course since Sutherland’s arrival in August 2015.
The anonymous employee’s complaint came after several CSB employees, who declined to go public, became worried that Sutherland’s plan to reclassify four positions at the agency jeopardized their jobs, and sought legal counsel.
In a statement to agency employees Monday that Sutherland shared with Government Executive, she explained that OPM had recommended that CSB reclassify several employees to clarify who is an attorney and who is an investigator.
In 2014-15, before Sutherland’s arrival, she noted, OPM had expressed a series of concerns about the agency’s human capital management processes. In response, Sutherland hired a third-party consultant who uncovered “major issues with the agency’s performance management system, classification of certain positions and the organizational structure,” she said.
In July of this year, Sutherland announced a realignment, to be rolled out in multiple phases, that altered the management reporting structures of some offices. Agency leaders then “shared information, in private, with employees that are affected by the misclassification of their positions, to explain steps that may be taken over the next three months to rectify this issue,” she said. “Unfortunately, that information was publicly shared with individuals inside and outside of the agency. No action was taken or has been taken as of yet, as we are still seeking out alternative ways to address the issue.”
“CSB is a micro-agency,” Sutherland added, “and the last thing we want to do is lose employees.”