America’s Disgruntled Civil Servants

America's federal workforce is increasingly disenchanted.

workers

America’s federal workforce is increasingly disenchanted.

Josh Hicks, reporting for the Washington Post (“Morale drops among Defense Department’s civilian workers“):

Civilian defense employees have grown increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs, and many wouldn’t recommend their organization as a good place to work, according to the federal government’s 2014 personnel survey.

Employee approval ratings for the Defense Department, the federal government’s largest agency, dropped in 47 of 84 categories, according to a government workforce survey.

Paige Hinkle-Bowles, the Pentagon’s head of civilian personnel policy, acknowledged in a memo to employees that the results of the annual worker survey revealed “challenges,” but he said agency leadership is committed to addressing worker concerns through “action planning and ongoing process improvements.”

This year’s results show that the civilian defense workforce remains dissatisfied with senior leadership and managers. More than 42 percent of respondents said managers do not communicate goals and priorities effectively, and barely more than half said they respect senior leadership. Both rates declined by more than two percentage points compared with 2013.

At Defense, according to the survey, problems also have persisted in the areas of training, career advancement, accountability and openness to new ideas.

Fifty-two percent of employees indicated that they are not satisfied with job training, and 69 percent said they are not content with career-advancement opportunities.

Federal training budgets have shrunk in recent years because of spending cuts, and some Democrats have already used the survey results to argue that Congress needs to be more generous with funding.

“The level of dissatisfaction is not surprising in light of furloughs, government shutdown, pay freezes and [the] requirement to do more with less resources at a time when the demand for U.S. military involvement in world events is at an all-time post-9/11 high,” said Michael Amato, a spokesman for Rep. Adam Smith, Wash., the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, Okla., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that President Barack Obama needs to prioritize defense funding.

“It’s no surprise that the morale of DOD employees has suffered under this president’s misguided spending priorities,” he said.

Only 52 percent of respondents said senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, representing a drop of about four percentage points compared with last year. Additionally, 63 percent of employees indicated they don’t believe innovation is rewarded, and 55 percent said they don’t feel empowered to affect work processes.

Among the lowest scores, only 18 percent of employees said pay raises are based on job performance, and just 27 percent said they believe management takes steps to deal with poor work.

On a positive note, the vast majority of employees expressed satisfaction with work-life programs.

And it’s not just DoD. Kellie Lunney for Government Executive (“Overall Morale at VA Dips, Along With Faith in Leaders“):

Employees at the Veterans Affairs Department are less enchanted with their job and agency this year than they were in 2013.

Sixty-four percent of VA respondents to the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey reported being content with their job overall, down from 66 percent last year. Satisfaction with the department overall also was worse: 53 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the VA compared to 55 percent in 2013. The decrease in satisfaction isn’t particularly surprising given the widespread management problems at VA that came to light this spring, including cover-ups related to patient care.

Faith in senior leadership also took a hit over the past year, similar to the response from Defense Department employees on that topic.

Forty-four percent of VA workers who responded to the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey agreed that their organization’s top leaders “maintain high standards of honesty and integrity,” compared to 49 percent in 2013. Thirty-six percent said their senior leadership generated “high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce,” compared to 41 percent who agreed with that statement last year. And the number of respondents who said they felt a “high level of respect” for their organization’s top tier fell four percentage points from 2013 to 2014, from 50 percent to 46 percent. A paltry 37 percent said they were satisfied with the policies and practices of the VA’s senior leaders.

[…]

Forty-nine percent of VA employees reported being satisfied with their pay, the same as in 2013. Employees were particularly unhappy when it came to job performance and fairness: Twenty-eight percent said their work units took steps to deal with poor performers, while just 30 percent said promotions were based on merit. Pay raises also were a point of contention: Only 20 percent said they believed salary bumps “depend on how well employees perform their jobs.”

Still, VA employees reported a strong sense of mission and enthusiasm for their work, with 92 percent agreeing that what they do is important, 85 percent saying they enjoy their work and 92 percent supporting the statement: ”I am constantly looking for ways to do my job better.”

Most agencies have not yet released their survey results but, given the standardization of pay and benefits and the fact that all are suffering from cuts to training and travel budgets in the current environment, one would expect similar results across the board. If anything, DoD and VA are likely to have higher morale, given that they both have active, real world missions and therefore provide a sense that work is meaningful.

Of course, given widespread public sentiment that government workers are overpaid and underperforming, these results are unlikely to yield much sympathy. Then again, as Government Executive‘s Howard Risher reports (“The High Cost of Federal Workforce Depression“) low morale translates into worse performance.

Low employee morale adversely affects employee performance. When morale deteriorates, and it’s not addressed, at some point it transitions to what is best understood as workplace depression. This can happen when employees feel “overwhelmed, lost or fatigued as a result of excessive work demands,” says David Ulrich, one of the country’s experts on workforce issues.

[…]

The best way to understand the impact of that drop is to consider what research and anecdotal stories tell us about organizations with a high level of esprit de corps. There is a shared commitment to the organization’s success. Employees gain a high level of satisfaction from knowing they played a role in that success. They believe they are doing something important. The level of camaraderie and teamwork is high. They are willing to make sacrifices for the organization.

Where that’s true, employees typically perform at demonstrably higher levels. Research and anecdotal stories show that in a positive, supportive environment, employee performance can be as much as 30 percent to 40 percent higher than the norm. Workers enjoy being challenged and demonstrating their capabilities.

When morale is low, employees tend to lose their focus, are less attentive and diligent, withdraw and become less cooperative, and avoid responsibility. Everyone who interacts with a disgruntled employee recognizes the problem. It shows up as increases in common measures like absenteeism and grievances. The recently reported porn-watching at work is evidence of the problem.

Risher’s report focuses on the Secret Service, which has had several high profile incidents of late. But the effect is generalizable. And, the obvious answer—quit your job if you don’t like it—is even less of an option for most government workers than it is in the private sector in this economy.

Everyone wants to be treated fairly. In a work situation we all operate from what is referred to as a “psychological contract.” That contract defines the relationship between an employee and his or her supervisor. It covers what we expect from our employer and what’s expected of us. When that contract is breached, it’s a problem. Initially, employees see it as unfair—triggering grievances—and over time they become disenchanted or angry.

In the private sector, disgruntled employees quit. Turnover goes up as morale declines. Employees no longer have loyalty to an employer.

It’s not as simple in government, however. Especially at an agency like the Secret Service, employees have made a career commitment to the mission and agency. They are extremely reluctant to make the decision to quit midcareer. In fact, many would find it difficult to secure a job that pays as well. Their government experience does not translate easily, and often private employers are skeptical. Disgruntled employees and their agency would both benefit from their resignation.

My own situation is somewhat unique, in that civilian professors at professional military education institutions are in the excepted service and have substantially more autonomy than most of our general schedule counterparts. While I’m for all intent and purposes a civil servant, I’m hired on a short-term contract basis and never get career status. In exchange for that lack of job security, I’m largely left alone to pursue my work as I see fit. I have a much more structured work schedule than my counterparts in civilian academe but much more flexibility than most of the DoD workforce. Even so, the recent years of pay freezes, unpaid furloughs, and cutbacks in resources required to do our jobs (most notably, funding for research and travel but also such niggling things as paying to use certain copyrighted materials) has taken a toll on those who’ve been around awhile. (I’ve only been at it a little over a year, starting just after the last round of furloughs, and factored in the pay situation when taking the job, so find the strictures mildly annoying rather than soul crushing.)

Fiscal austerity is here to stay and probably should be. For my own part, I’d be fine with that if it were being managed thoughtfully rather than applied through random inaction. Sequestration was designed as a poison pill to force rational compromise and, instead, became reality. Instead of looking at the various services the federal government pays for and deciding which ones it no longer needs or otherwise realigning our priorities with our new spending posture, Congress and the administration have been content to simply cut across the board. The result is a mismatch of demands and resources that impact mission performance. That, as my former director observed at the time of last year’s government shutdown, is no way to run a railroad. But it’s quickly becoming status quo or, to use an old military acronym, SNAFU.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. beth says:

    Is it really all that much different at private companies? Lower level employees are being asked to do a lot more with much less, suffering with flat wages and little control over their schedules. Is this the new normal for all work?

  2. Tony W says:

    This is a natural result of the Reagan philosophy of “government is bad”. We cut funding, decimate the agencies, then complain that they are ineffective.

    Who wants to work someplace seen as ineffective?

  3. Barry says:

    James: “Fiscal austerity is here to stay and probably should be.”

    Please see Krugman, Paul, ‘The Correctest Man in the World’.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    Being in an organization where there are cut backs, limited resources, and a shrinking workforce is never fun. Add to that the high flying years from there is no way that any manager is gong to have the skills to keep most employees happy. Add to the downsize in government with even more severe cutbacks with DOD contractors and the civil servants know that there will not be a second lucretive career after retiring from the civil service.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    @Barry:

    Do you think it would help moral for all of the GS-12 through GS-15 to start paying much higher taxes so that the core groups in the Democratic Party can pay off construction unions and municipal employees? Krugman is smart enough to know that higher spending know leads to higher taxes in the future. The issue is that Dr Krugman does not like to talk about the other have of Keynesian stimulus.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Barry: Krugman is probably right that this is a bad time for government to dry up spending on programs, given both the weak economy and low interest rates. It’s a good time to invest heavily in infrastructure, for example. I don’t know that it follows that we ought to continue to maintain a huge workforce doing things that we no longer need.

    DoD can certainly absorb the amount of cuts being proposed, but needs to be able to do things like shed excess infrastructure rather than simply cutting across the board.

  7. Scott says:

    As a side issue, I just read an article about declining female participation in the workforce. It listed all the usual kinds of issues (such as childcare, elderly parents, etc.). What was missing it seems, is that women are discovering what the men know, namely that work just sucks anymore. Beth is right. It is not much better in private industry.

    A few decades (60s and 70s) ago, there was a lot of application of organizational behavior theory and practice. That seems to have gone away in the last 20 years or so. People are no longer valued and it shows in our business culture. Now it is most important to maximize shareholder value and to hell with everything else.

  8. Pinky says:

    @Barry: Wow, I just realized that you were referencing Krugman non-sarcastically. Weird.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    Fiscal austerity is here to stay and probably should be.

    Sure…If you want weak growth as far as the eye can see.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Krugman is smart enough to know that higher spending know leads to higher taxes in the future.

    That’s just another of the Republican catechisms that is unsupported by either fact or history.
    If we are going to create policy based on stupidity, then our policies are going to be stupid.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Well, considering that Republicans and their mouthpiece, the WSJ, has been yammering for years about how horrible government is and how government workers are overpaid, is this any surprise?

    One little tiny thing: you get what you pay for. If you want to be abusive towards government workers at the USPTO so that they get fed up and quit, don’t then turn around and whine that it takes 7 years to get your patent application through the system.

  12. al-Ameda says:

    Well, for 30 years or so our political culture has effectively been saying that government programs and government workers are not valuable, so it should come as no surprise that so many government workers are demoralized.

    I might add that mid-level private sector workers have not been proportionately sharing in the wealth created in successive economic booms since 1983, and many of those workers are disgruntled too.

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    @C. Clavin: Increases in spending do typically result in greater government revenues. That’s why austerity as method of deficit reduction is self-defeating

  14. John D'Geek says:

    @James Joyner: The bad part is that results are actually far worse than the survey indicates. Take a quick, informal survey around your workplace: ask them how many honestly answer these surveys, and how many automatically give things a “thumbs up” — “because they know better than to answer honestly”.

    Long ago I learned for myself what a co-worker (now retired) told me: honestly answering these (DoD) surveys has no good results. Best case scenario, they give you even more nonsense training to do.

    This level of Government Insanity can be easily demonstrated: after teaching you never to place anything on your vehicle(s) that identifies you as being with the DoD (anti-terrorist training), they require you to place a sticker on your car identifying you as part of the DoD …

  15. Ben Wolf says:

    @C. Clavin: My bad, just realized super’s oddly worded statement is an attempt at ricardian equivalence argument.

    There has in fact never been a case of spending by a country with its own currency and liabilities denominated in that currency requiring higher taxation tomorrow. Income cannot be transported through time.

  16. just me says:

    My husband works in the private sector. I work fir a local government entity.

    Those survey results would be similar for both our situations.

    The job market sucks right now. People are trapped in jobs they hate-especially for jobs that require little or no specific skills/knowledge.

  17. superdestroyer says:

    @C. Clavin:

    There is nothing Republican about it. Keynesian stimulus during the bad time that is funded by deficit spending just means higher taxes and government cut backs during the good times so that the government can pay of the debt before the next downturn.

    From cite

    An offshoot of new classical theory formulated by Harvard’s Robert Barro is the idea of debt neutrality. Barro argues that inflation, unemployment, real GNP, and real national saving should not be affected by whether the government finances its spending with high taxes and low deficits or with low taxes and high deficits. Because people are rational, he argues, they will correctly perceive that low taxes and high deficits today must mean higher future taxes for them and their heirs.

    Since neither Repubican nor Democrats have been able to restrain themselves during the good times, it should be clear that Keynesian economics cannot ever be fully implemented. Krugman knows this but just does not care. Krugman is also smart enough to know that every additional dollar spent by the government will help Democrats more than Republicans.

  18. superdestroyer says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Are you really going to claim that the U.S. can just spend its way out of a recession and that the long term growth in debt has no effect on the economic or on private sector decisions?

  19. superdestroyer says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Also, are you really going to claim that the high marginal tax rates of the 1950’s in the U.S. were not partially due to the high debt run up by the federal government during World War II?

  20. Jenos Idanian #13 says:
  21. John425 says:

    And then there are the stories of bonuses for the VA managers and the wasteful million dollar “retreats” for the IRS et al. along with tobacco crop subsidies and No Smoking campaigns.

  22. Gustopher says:

    Maybe they should be allowed to bring their dogs to work? Dogs in the office make people happier — they’re furry, friendly, etc.

    Either that or hire enough staff to do the work, give raises for the first time in many years so their wages aren’t slowly being eaten away by inflation. It might be nice to not demonize them all the time too.

  23. Ben Wolf says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Also, are you really going to claim that the high marginal tax rates of the 1950’s in the U.S. were not partially due to the high debt run up by the federal government during World War II?

    That’s exactly what I’m saying.

    Capitalist economies throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries were prone to economic slumps due to overproduction of more things than markets could absorb. Near the end of WWII Roosevelt’s advisors recommended that to avoid the cycle again, incomes be directed toward a broad middle-class which would spend a high proportion of its income and ensure everything produced had a waiting buyer. The point of high tax rates on the wealthy was for inflation control, so that everyone else could spend their savings accumulated during the war and it worked: economy grew so rapidly that debt as a share of GDP shrank to insignificance without being “paid off” and inflation remained tame until the oil shocks of the 1970s.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @superdestroyer: So what should we have done? Not gone to war in WWII?

  25. @just me:

    People are trapped in jobs they hate-especially for jobs that require little or no specific skills/knowledge.

    This is really just the reality of most work. As much as we like to talk about finding something you’re passionate about, blah blah blah, the reality is very few people can support themselves doing that sort of work. Most people have to for a job they find minimally tolerable and that hopefully pays enough to allow them to do the things they are actually passionate about in their off time.

    Considering that the ~40% of the “dissatisfied” employees haven’t actually quit, the jobs apparently aren’t THAT bad.

  26. Keith says:

    As a Federal employee at the Department of Transportation, I would say that I do have a “real world” mission. One that impacts millions of Americans every year.

    That said, the government shutdown hit my morale pretty hard. The very minimal pay raises don’t help–my income hasn’t gone up, even with a promotion (I took a significant pay cut to come into government from the outside), in four years. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is that our over-reliance on contractors is really unbelievable. It is next to impossible to get an extra billett for a full time GS employee, but it is very easy to obtain funding to hire a contractor for the same job.

    That doesn’t speak to the quality or character of contractors–many, if not most are dedicated, hard working employees. But the planning is incredibly short sighted. You can’t get permission to hire a GS-12 at $85K per year (In DC), but you can get permission to hire a contractor that will cost $150K annually. (The $85K figure for the GS-12 doesn’t include benefits though while the contractor $150K does.)

  27. bill says:

    so essentially they’ll just stick it out as nobody will pay them any better to do less work and have unheard of job security? i’m weeping as we speak….

  28. DrDaveT says:

    Sen. Jim Inhofe, Okla., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that President Barack Obama needs to prioritize defense funding.

    “It’s no surprise that the morale of DOD employees has suffered under this president’s misguided spending priorities,” he said.

    Senator Inhofe is apparently unaware that defense funding doesn’t go to DoD employees — it goes to Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, BAE, and Northrup Grumman.

    It does not help morale that the government is apparently willing to pour unlimited amounts of money into contractor coffers, but can’t abide a few cents for oversight, testing, or planning.

  29. DrDaveT says:

    @Tony W:

    This is a natural result of the Reagan philosophy of “government is bad”.

    This. If you’re going to assert that government is the problem, good luck recruiting the best and brightest to work for the government. The “greed is good” era didn’t follow Reagan by accident.

    We cut funding, decimate the agencies, then complain that they are ineffective.

    That’s Grover Norquist’s long-term strategy. If we cripple government enough, everyone will agree that government is inept, so we can cripple it some more. Eventually, the rich will run everything with no interference.

  30. Yolo Contendere says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Considering that the ~40% of the “dissatisfied” employees haven’t actually quit, the jobs apparently aren’t THAT bad.

    Now that’s just asinine. Can’t be “THAT bad”, because they prefer it over starving?

  31. Mikey says:

    @Keith:

    You can’t get permission to hire a GS-12 at $85K per year (In DC), but you can get permission to hire a contractor that will cost $150K annually.

    Because a government employee is permanent salary plus benefits and pension, while a contractor is a temporary flat rate and can get dropped at any time.

  32. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT:

    the government is apparently willing to pour unlimited amounts of money into contractor coffers

    Where are those coffers? My contractor friends who were just given the choice between taking a 10% pay cut or being laid off want to know.

  33. eclecticdog says:

    Why is there no mention of the poor management public and private institutions and their first-line employees are suffering under? The quality of management has gotten worse and worse beginning in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Is it tied to the MBA diploma mill and ridiculous bonuses for the top tier?

  34. Tony W says:

    @Mikey: That’s the rationale, but in reality they never leave. Drive the highway from Dulles through Reston, Virginia one day and take a look at the results of those temporary contractors who can leave any time.

  35. Mikey says:

    @Tony W: The big body shops like GD and BAH generally keep their employees around, but that’s because they have enough contracts to keep them working. Small subcontractors and independents? They’re pretty much at the whim of the re-compete.

    And even if they do stay around, the government still isn’t on the hook for salary, bennies, and pension. They’ll cost the government a lot less in the long run, and they can be moved to other contracts or let go in ways that are impossible for government employees.

  36. DrDaveT says:

    @Mikey:

    Where are those coffers? My contractor friends who were just given the choice between taking a 10% pay cut or being laid off want to know.

    In Bethesda, and Marrieta, and Fort Worth, and El Segundo, and Seattle, and the other corporate headquarters. The employees of the big 5 don’t do all that well; only the executives. It’s called “overhead”…

  37. J-Dub says:

    @Mikey:

    Where are those coffers? My contractor friends who were just given the choice between taking a 10% pay cut or being laid off want to know.

    HP laid this line on me once. I laughed at them and started fielding offers that were 30% higher than what I was already making. In the end I started my own consulting company. Of course this was also when the CEO of HP, Mark Hurd, was putting his mistress on the payroll. Don’t trust anything a giant corporation tells you. They will sell out their own employees to cover their own asses and/or raise the stock price a penny.

  38. John D'Geek says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Considering that the ~40% of the “dissatisfied” employees haven’t actually quit, the jobs apparently aren’t THAT bad.

    There is one well-known but little-published fact about gov’t (Federal) employment: once you’re in for longer than a year, it’s practically impossible to escape.

    As was pointed out earlier, federal skills do not translate to non-federal employment. This applies to Engineering and Software professionals as well (though IT, at least, is a bit better off). It might seem like “C++ is C++ wherever you go”, but the types of work done in gov’t do not exist outside of the DoD.

    So my two employment options (shy of switching careers altogether, a non-trivial endeavor — especially at my age) are DoD and DoD contractor.

  39. John425 says:

    @DrDaveT: They already do. Obama and his Wall Street cronies are in charge. That’s why there is no resolution to the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal, the IRS Tea Party harassments, Benghazi killings and so much more.
    An incoming Republican Administration in 2016 is going to be very busy rounding up all the Democrat miscreants for trial.