Sinking Employee Morale Worries HR Chiefs

Angela Waye/

Concerns over federal employee morale dominated the annual public meeting of the government’s top human capital leaders on Tuesday.

Job satisfaction among federal workers has dropped nearly across the board in 2013 -- a year marked by furloughs, a pay freeze and proposals to reduce federal employee compensation, according to the latest Federal Employment Viewpoint Survey from the Office of Personnel Management released on Friday. OPM officials, including newly-confirmed Director Katherine Archuleta, discussed the survey’s results and how to capitalize on positive trends while tackling worrisome ones.

“What is concerning to us is, one of the challenges this year starting to creep up concerns overall resources -- whether feds have the resources necessary to do their work, said Justin Johnson, OPM deputy chief of staff, during the meeting. Just 44 percent of employees in the 2013 FEVS said they had sufficient resources to do their jobs, down from 48 percent last year and 50 percent in 2010. And while overall job satisfaction is down from 2012, most notably with pay, Johnson said FEVS is not just about satisfaction, but about how employees perceive how they are treated in the workplace and the level of commitment they feel to their jobs. “What we are really encouraged by is, that despite all the turmoil that our workforce has been through…employee engagement has held pretty steady,” said Johnson. More than 90 percent of participants in the survey reported a desire to put in extra effort, look for ways to do their jobs better and view their work as important, according to OPM.

The focus on morale and employee engagement during Tuesday’s meeting comes at a particularly challenging time for the federal community. 2013 marked the third year of the federal civilian pay freeze; the beginning of sequestration, which resulted in employee furloughs during the spring and summer; a 16-day government shutdown in October that brought more furloughs; a September shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., which killed 12 civilians and contractors; and another shooting incident and major security breach on Nov. 1 at Los Angeles International Airport that killed a Transportation Security Administration employee.

“I want to forge a new pathway forward, I really want to think about ways we can improve our workplace,” Archuleta said during the meeting, which was her first with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council. “I want to be sure that we’re thinking about the work-life stresses that our employees have.”

Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, told the council on Tuesday that “we need to restore a sense of value and self-worth to federal workers,” after the past year. Junemann said he hears from union members who feel “pretty damn unappreciated,” not by agency management necessarily, but from “the guy across the street who thinks they work for government because they can’t hack it in the real world.”

CHCOs at the meeting mentioned several best practices that the council and other HR officials have touted as ways to better engage the federal workforce: active labor-management partnerships within agencies, mentoring programs for employees, leadership buy-in, and focus groups that revisit specific issues and questions from the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. For instance, Terence Cook, deputy chief human capital officer at the Justice Department, said focus groups have been very successful at the department. “Employees feel like they have say-so at Justice.”

Archuleta said she would look to the council members for their expertise on many issues facing the federal workplace. “I hope I can bring some new ideas and creativity and innovation, but really, I sit at your feet because you’ve been doing this for a long time,” Archuleta told them. “You know how to do it and I’m going to look to you for new ideas on how we can do more with less, new ideas for how we can raise up the spotlight that needs to be on our federal employees, how we can make systems smoother and how we can bring new systems into place.”

The former national political director for President Obama’s re-election campaign and chief of staff at the departments of Labor and Transportation reiterated many of the priorities she mentioned during her Senate confirmation hearing: improving information technology and the security clearance process, expediting retirement applications and making the federal workforce more diverse. Archuleta did not, however, talk on Tuesday about OPM’s role in implementing Obamacare.

OPM is responsible for administering multiple state health plans on the insurance exchange network created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, negotiating premiums and benefits with insurance providers who participate in the multi-state plans on the exchanges, similar to the agency’s administration of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The initial open enrollment for plans offered through the exchanges started Oct. 1, but overall implementation of Obamacare has been disrupted because of major problems with the website, which have created headaches for people trying to sign up for health insurance.

Archuleta did not respond to a question after Tuesday’s meeting about OPM’s role in the health care exchanges, or whether the agency was being briefed on the administration’s progress fixing the website. The White House recently tapped Jeff Zients, former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and the next director of the National Economic Council, to oversee’s fixes.

(Image via Angela Waye/

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