Although officials at the Office of Personnel Management applauded slight growth in employee engagement metrics in the results of the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey released Thursday, there is increasing worry over a long-running trend of declining participation in the questionnaire.
Across government, the employee engagement increased by 1 point on a 100-point scale, from 67 last year to 68 this year. But the percentage of federal workers who responded to the survey fell nearly 5 percentage points from 45.5 percent in 2017 to 40.6 percent this year.
That drop happened despite an effort by OPM to improve participation by shifting from a survey model, where only a selection of around 1 million employees are given the chance to answer the roughly 80 questions, to a census, where all federal workers are invited to respond. In terms of the raw number of responses, participation increased from 485,000 in 2017 to 598,000 this year, but that was the result of inviting an additional 500,000 people to participate.
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The idea of changing the survey into a census to boost response rates was floated by Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, following the release of last year’s results. She applauded the move, and suggested that OPM continue that approach in future years.
“I think every federal employee needs to be given the opportunity to share their views with their leadership, and that’s an important message for OPM to send,” she said. “But the response rate is 40.6 percent, which is the lowest rate that we’ve seen since we started doing the [Best Places to Work in the Federal Government] rankings” based on viewpoint survey results.
At its height, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey saw a response rate of 56.7 percent in 2006. Bulman said that it’s important to remember that a 40 percent response rate still constitutes a representative sample of federal workers, although it can become more problematic if you look at individual agencies with lower response rates. As of 5 p.m. on Friday, OPM had not made available agency-by-agency data for this year’s survey.
Although the primary metrics of the survey remain stable, Bulman warned that waning participation in the survey could be an indicator of fewer workers believing that agency leaders listen to them.
“[Response rates are] determined by a couple of things, one being the extent to which employees feel that their voices are going to be heard,” she said. “For every 1-point increase in Question 41, which is, ‘I believe results . . . will be used to make my agency a better place to work,’ the agency’s best places to work index score increases by 0.7 points, and the response rate increases by 0.55 points. So we know very clearly when employees feel their voice is heard.”
Bulman said the decline in the survey’s response rate likely could not be the result of the transition to a new participation methodology. In 2012, OPM issued the survey as a census for one year, and 46.1 percent of federal workers participated. Instead, she said OPM should push agencies to improve how they respond to the results of the survey, and to better communicate those actions to employees.
“A big focus of the Partnership is that we want to make sure agency leaders have the opportunity to share what they’re hearing, truly listen to employees, and come up with actionable next steps,” Bulman said. “That’s something that can truly affect the response rates, that your leaders are listening and what employees say matters.”