4 Takeaways From the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Results

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has released the results of the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The results show that the upward movement in employee satisfaction that began two years ago is continuing. That is good news. Many in and out of government had expected the presidential transition to have the opposite effect.

The FEVS results are positive, with good increases in employee satisfaction in many agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. As with most surveys, people are already deciding what the results mean and why they are what they are. Readers should not be surprised if some folks draw conclusions that neatly align with their preconceptions about the workforce, individual agencies, and the government as a whole. For example, some are saying that the improvement in results is a direct result of the approach of the new administration, while others are saying that the results stem from fear of the Trump administration.

Rather than trying to read something into the results that is not supported by the data, I prefer to see what key takeaways we can take from the actual results. Here are four facts that stand out.

The response rate dropped from 45.8 percent in 2016, to 45.5 percent in 2017, and that is neither good nor bad. Response rates can tell us a lot of things, such as whether employees think agencies will use the data to make changes.  If we saw a drop or increase of a few percent, it might tell us something. This change is minor and does not say much of anything. Where it does tell us something is in individual agency response rates. For example, the Department of Transportation had an increase of 5.8 percent. The Department of the Army saw a 7.1 percent increase. Those are noteworthy increases that may tell us something about the credibility of leaders or the mood of the workforce, but it would take a deep dive into the agency data to say what it really means.

The answers for almost all FEVS questions were more positive. The fact that there were so many increases and so few drops most likely means the mood of the workforce is generally better. The data that has been publicly released does not tell us why, but it is a good sign. What is most noteworthy is that the trend has continued for several years.

There are some questions with very high agreement. It should come as no surprise that almost everyone said they are willing to put in extra effort to get the job done, or that they look for ways to do their jobs better. The only people who would be surprised by that are the folks who have no respect for the federal workforce. After working in and around the government for almost 40 years, it is not at all surprising to me. Another subject that may surprise some folks is the high ratings federal workers give their supervisors on some important questions, with 80 percent or more agreeing that their supervisors treat them with respect and support their need for work/life balance. That tells me that when federal workers complain about leadership in their agencies, they are not talking about their first level supervisors.

There are no surprises in the questions with the lowest agreement, but they remain troubling. Unlike their view of supervisors, only 32 percent of respondents believe senior leaders in their organizations generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce. We should expect to see some differences in how people perceive their supervisor and senior leaders, if for no other reason than that supervisors are people they see every day and know well. Senior leaders may be more distant and the amount of direct contact more limited. Even so, the gap between employee perceptions of their supervisors and senior leaders is a problem.

Another perennial problem is the belief that agencies do not do well in dealing with poor performers. Only 31 percent of respondents (up from 29 percent last year) agreed that their agencies take steps to deal with problem employees, while 42 percent disagreed. This one is significant. It means the people who are often most aware of problem employees, and who have to pick up the slack when the problem folks do not do their work, are not seeing real improvement. Seeing a coworker not perform or behave badly with no consequences can drive employee engagement down in a big way. I believe it is the single most important change agencies could make to change employee perceptions of their jobs.

Data and graphics are from OPM’s 2017 FEVS Governmentwide Management Report

Use the Department of Veterans Affairs to Test Real Hiring Reform

The Department of Veterans Affairs clearly needs help with filling vacancies. Federal News Radio recently reported that Secretary David Shulkin said “It’s the single most challenging thing that I know of in VA. It shouldn’t be that hard to get people on board.”

Secretary Shulkin is right. Agency leaders, members of congress and other stakeholders have said for years that the federal hiring process is a tremendous barrier to attracting new talent to the federal government. Those people are right, too. When there is almost universal agreement that something is a problem, why does the problem not get fixed? The answer is in the combination of inertia that hampers all government reforms, and in the interests of the various groups who want to say how federal hiring should work. People on the left tend to want hiring to focus on keeping federal jobs in the hands of federal workers, while those on the right want to use hiring reform to push jobs into the private sector.

We should stop focusing on the interests of a few and pay attention to the real problem. The VA hiring dilemma is a great example. Secretary Shulkin says VA has 49,000 vacancies and is not making headway on getting them filled. Congress may consider direct hire authority for some of the jobs, but not for all of them. Even if they get partial relief, the likelihood of getting all of those jobs filled is slim.

The best solution is to implement department-wide hiring reform that can serve as a model for the rest of the federal government. VA is the perfect place to try something that truly fixes the hiring process. Here is why.

People hate to admit it, but the biggest problem with the hiring process is the way veteran preference is implemented. I have written about this issue before. When we talk about the complexity of federal hiring, it all boils down to the idea that we come up with what we believe are valid ways of assessing applicants, then we throw out much of the assessment and add points or lump applicants into categories because they are veterans. The result is the messy and incomprehensible hiring process that we currently have.

The intent of veteran preference is sound. Most people would not argue with the idea that we should provide a benefit to those who have served in the armed forces. That does not mean we have to do it the way we do now. There is a far easier approach that does not make a mess of the hiring process.

The best approach congress could adopt, using VA as the testing ground, is to grant direct hire authority to VA for any veteran for any job. That would be the new form of veteran preference. For jobs that the department chooses to advertise, there would be no preference for veterans or anyone else. The department would fill the jobs the same way they would if they were VA, Inc.They would advertise jobs and pick the people they believe are the best qualified. Period.

The VA is a perfect place to test this approach, because there is no question that the department is committed to veterans. Veteran benefits and health are the mission (and I’m not forgetting the Cemetery Administration). At 32.8%, VA has the third highest percentage of veterans in its workforce (behind DoD and Transportation). Granting preference through direct hire authority rather than points or special categories is likely to have no negative effect on veteran hiring. In fact, it is more likely to increase it. At the same time, it puts the VA hiring processes on level footing with the private sector. Why is that important? Because that is the competition in the talent market. Combining the negative perceptions of government in some quarters with the absurdly complex federal hiring process created a situation where VA and some other agencies cannot compete effectively for talent.

The mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the most critical of any agency. If we want them to be able to carry out that mission, we need to give them the tools they need to hire the people they need. This approach is simple, will go a long way toward solving the problem, and could be the model for government-wide hiring reform.