Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill. NSF was one of the agencies that did well on questions related to morale and engagement.

Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill. NSF was one of the agencies that did well on questions related to morale and engagement. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

These Agencies Performed the Best—and Worst—on Key Employee Morale Questions

Although the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is missing some broad historical metrics due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a look at individual questions can offer some insights.

In a year when the federal government lost ground on central job satisfaction metrics like employee engagement and morale, a few smaller agencies consistently measured near the top on the annual survey questions underlying those scores.

Last week, the Office of Personnel Management released the results of last fall’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which found that overall employee engagement and job satisfaction slightly declined in 2021, likely in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending transition back to traditional work sites.

But as part of its efforts to streamline how the survey is administered and analyzed so that beginning this year it can be administered in the traditional spring survey period, OPM forewent agency-by-agency data measuring traditional indices like employee engagement and global satisfaction, instead releasing only how certain agencies performed on individual survey questions. And OPM condensed responses from small agencies into one category.

Looking at a couple of key survey questions related to employee morale and engagement, four small- and mid-sized agencies dominated, landing in the top five in each question and well above the governmentwide average. The National Science Foundation, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, General Services Administration and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation each landed in the top five on questions related to employees’ job satisfaction, senior leaders’ ability to motivate the workforce, and whether employees believe their agency will use Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results to improve the workplace.

NSF Chief Human Capital Officer and office head for the Office of Information and Resource Management Wonzie Gardner said key to his agency's success is an ongoing open dialogue with staff. But he noted that the approach makes progress much more slowly at large agencies.

"One of the things we did was we were very open, transparent and honest in our deliberations," Gardner said. "We told employees in real time what we know, and more importantly we told them what we didn't know. We had to be creative to provide for and with them during the pandemic. Our staff knew that, and our scores are a testament to this, that the health, safety and welfare of [the workforce] was paramount to everything we did."

But on the other hand, four agencies found themselves consistently near the bottom on these same questions. The Homeland Security Department, Social Security Administration, as well as the Justice and State departments all found themselves in the bottom five of at least two of these three questions.

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that although its performance on the questions related to job satisfaction and whether the department will use the survey's results to improve the workplace are in line with governmentwide trends, employee opinions on leadership's ability to motivate them has steadily improved over the years.

"Over the past five years, we have seen a consistent, incremental increase with the response on this item," the spokesperson said. "The percent positive was 37.2% in 2017 and has grown to 49.8% in 2021—that includes a 7% increase between 2020 and 2021 that puts the department’s score slightly above the governmentwide average. The results were promising and a direct result of the actions of our senior leaders."

The Social Security Administration placed the blame for its poor showing on a lack of funding, which spokesman Mark Hinkle said contributes to burnout and other factors that drive down employee morale scores.

"Chronic underfunding is detrimental to our success and our employees’ experience," Hinkle said. "For example, the final budget this year from Congress was $850 billion less than the president’s budget, requiring us to delay planned hiring, which would give relief to our workers. We now have the lowest number of employees in over 25 years. This will increase our customers’ wait times for service, increase processing times, and lead to increases in pending workloads. Our employees feel the weight of those challenges. We continue learning and evaluating how we can meet our mission and support our employees, including with increased telework."

The top and bottom agencies on select survey questions were: 

Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?

1. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation: 84.8% agree or strongly agree

2. National Science Foundation, 83.3%

3. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 81.7%

4. General Services Administration, 81.1%

5. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 79.2%

30. Agriculture Department, 64.7%

31. State Department, 63.8%

32. Justice Department, 62.3%

33. Social Security Administration, 61.5%

34. Homeland Security Department, 60.2%

In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.

1. National Science Foundation, 73.9% agree or strongly agree

2. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 70.6%

3. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, 70.6%

4. General Services Administration, 69.6%

5. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 65.1%

30. Interior Department, 42.6%

31. Social Security Administration, 42.5%

32. Homeland Security Department, 41.9%

33. Federal Trade Commission, 41.5%

34. Justice Department, 40.6%

I believe the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work.

1. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 72.4%

2. National Science Foundation, 71.7%

3. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, 66.7%

4. General Services Administration, 64.9%

5. National Credit Union Administration, 64.1%

30. Agriculture Department, 37.9%

31. National Labor Relations Board, 37%

32. Defense Department (excluding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the military service branches), 35.9%

33. State Department, 35.8%

34. Justice Department, 31.0%

Although OPM eschewed its traditional calculation of the employee engagement and global satisfaction indices on an agency-by-agency basis, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service confirmed last week that it will continue to do its own analysis of survey results to produce its annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report "in the coming months."

“The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is one of the best tools available for understanding the experience of federal public servants,” Partnership President Max Stier said. “The results of the 2021 FEVS are particularly important for identifying opportunities to modernize and improve federal workforce management practices, especially as we continue to grapple with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”