The federal government should consider changing how it administers its annual survey of employee engagement, said officials at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, after many small agencies’ results were withheld from its tabulation of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” analysis, prepared in conjunction with Deloitte.
Until this year, agencies with between 50 and 300 respondents to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey were given the option to opt into PPS’s annual rankings. But OPM informed the group earlier this fall that it was changing its privacy policies and that it would not provide agency-level data for any agency with fewer than 300 survey respondents.
Tuesday afternoon, OPM reversed that decision, however, and provided the group with the missing data. Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership, said in a statement that his group would update its rankings for small agencies and agency subcomponents to include the new information in early 2018.
“OPM’s decision to now provide more complete government-wide data will make it easier for agencies to compare themselves to their federal counterparts, and help Congress and the Trump administration engage in comprehensive oversight of federal workforce management,” Stier said.
Mallory Barg Bulman, the Partnership’s vice president for research and evaluation, said OPM should consider shifting from a sample model where only a portion of the federal workforce is solicited to participate to a census model, which offers the poll to all federal workers, to ameliorate privacy concerns and improve response rates at smaller agencies.
“I think privacy’s always important and we want to protect employee privacy, but that needs to be balanced with transparency,” she said. “If you do a sample rather than a census, the response rate still might be rather high, but if you’re not giving the survey to everyone, you don’t have the opportunity to have a truly high response rate. One of the most important things in employee engagement is that federal employees feel that they are heard.”
The Partnership reaches its own version of an "engagement" score and resulting Best Places to Work Rankings by applying a weighted formula to the three questions from the FEVS that the group considers most predictive of whether an employee will remain at an agency. Those questions are: "I recommend my organization as a good place to work;" "Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job;" and "Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?"
This year marks the sixth consecutive year that NASA leads large agencies in engagement. In second place is the Health and Human Services Department, which jumped 4 points in its engagement score to leapfrog from fifth place in 2016. But the State Department, which has been in turmoil since President Trump’s inauguration and the appointment of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, dropped 2.8 points in the rankings, down to eighth place.
Employee engagement across government reached a score of 61.5 out of 100 this year, 2.1 points higher than in 2016. But that still lags significantly behind the private sector’s 77.8 out of 100, according to Mercer Sirota, a survey research group.
“The gains in federal employee engagement are promising and indicate that an intentional focus on the management of the workforce can make a difference,” Stier said. “A highly motivated and engaged workforce is critical to a well-functioning government and the success of our country.”
Among mid-size agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took the top slot in 2017, improving from fourth place a year ago. The Government Accountability Office remained in second place this year, while the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation fell from first to third.
The Homeland Security Department again found itself at the bottom of large agency rankings in 2017, although it built on its gains last year, increasing from 45.8 to 52.0 this year.
The Veterans Affairs Department, which continues to go through upheaval as the White House has promised reform and members of Congress have sought to privatize some aspects of veteran care, saw its score drop from 56.7 last year to 56.1 in 2017.
The National Labor Relations Board saw the best improvement among mid-size agencies, increasing 7.4 points from 60.5 in 2016 to 67.9 this year. The Small Business Administration also posted big gains, improving by 7.3 points to 59.4 in 2017.
As a result of OPM’s initial decision, 21 small agencies and 165 agency subcomponents were not included in the first round of this year's rankings. Although the small agency rankings are incomplete, the Office of Management and Budget saw a stark decline in employee engagement, dropping 7.3 points from 2016 to 75.4. But the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an agency borne out of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, climbed 13.8 points from 60.0 last year to 73.8 in 2017.
Of the 150 agency subcomponents for which the Partnership received data, the Secret Service came in last again this year, with a virtually unchanged score of 33. The workforce has suffered low morale and scandals in recent years, and workers perennially hit their annual overtime limits early because of under-staffing, requiring congressional action.
Several subcomponents of the Environmental Protection Agency saw steep declines in this year’s scores. The Office of Air and Radiation dropped 7.3 points; the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, 5.5 points; the Office of Water, 5.4 points; Pacific Southwest Region, 3.9 points; and Mid-Atlantic Region, 2.9 points.
Additionally, the FBI, which has seen repeated attacks from Trump’s Twitter account and had its director controversially fired last spring, fell 2.1 points this year, from 68.7 in 2016 to 66.6.
Despite raising concerns earlier this fall about lagging response rates to the FEVS both governmentwide and at individual agencies, Bulman said the Partnership ultimately decided not to adjust its formula to account for shifts in the proportion of agency employees that took the survey.
“It always comes down to the question—are they responding differently from those who are not responding?” she said. “Although the response rate has gone down to 45.5 percent, that’s still a respectable response rate by survey standards. And there does not appear to be a relationship between response rate and overall score.”