Advocacy Group Sues for Documents on Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Tweak

PEER accuses the White House of demanding a change to “senior leaders” definition to prevent workers from criticizing Trump appointees.

An advocacy group this week sued the Office of Personnel Management to force the agency to provide documentation on how it changed the definition of “senior leaders” in a test version of the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

At issue is the fact that ahead of the 2018 version of the survey, which is designed to measure federal workers’ attitudes toward management and compensation, OPM tested a new definition for “senior leaders” that includes fewer members of an agency’s top-level management.

From the survey’s inception in 2002 until 2017, “senior leaders” referred to “heads of departments/agencies and their immediate leadership team,” including both political appointees and career members of the Senior Executive Service. But for this year’s survey, respondents were instructed to define “senior leaders” as “your nearest senior executive (SES, director or higher-level GS) in your organizational structure who is responsible for directing policies and priorities within the organization.”

In an email to Government Executive, an OPM spokesperson said that the original definition of “senior leaders” was administered to the vast majority of participants in this year’s survey, and that the new definition was merely part of a “test version of the FEVS, issued during the administration of the 2018 FEVS.”

“However, data from it were not used in any of the reports and were for testing purposes only,” the spokesperson said.

Guidance on the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey issued by then-OPM Director Jeff Pon in April that said some employees would participate in a pilot program of an “improved form of the FEVS” with “clarifications to definitions (e.g., leadership).”

But Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch said that particular tweak may be politically motivated. He said a source alerted the group to pressure from the White House to revise the definition in an effort to protect Trump administration officials from criticism by their employees in various departments and agencies.

The group filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for specific correspondence between the White House and OPM in July, but as of Friday it had not received a response, or even a timeline for when the request would be fulfilled. PEER this week sued OPM to force the agency to produce the documents.

“Our request names particular officials, like the White House liaison [to OPM] and asks for emails with specific search terms,” Ruch said. “It’s not a ‘needle in a haystack’ FOIA request. They could have easily complied within the statutory deadline.”

Ruch said that if the new definition is fully implemented as part of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, it would reduce employees’ ability to provide feedback on how their agency is managed and could make it harder for agency leadership to judge its performance over time.

“The survey is touted as a vehicle by which employees rate the performance of agencies, among other issues, and this would eliminate that function altogether,” he said. “It confines the FEVS to a cubicle-sized view, rather than an agency-large view . . . It takes away the opportunity for employees to express their satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and it allows appointees to claim they’re doing a tremendous job without fear of contradiction.”