The budget deal making its way through Congress this week may provide some reprieve from perpetual Washington dysfunction. Unfortunately, it can’t undo the harm that dysfunction has already caused. For proof, look no further than the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey of government employees, published Wednesday.
Federal employee satisfaction and commitment are at their lowest point since the survey began in 2003. Published by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte Consulting, the survey covers 97 percent of the 2.1 million U.S. federal workers. (I serve on the partnership’s board.)
Job satisfaction has fallen for three years in a row. And it’s easy to understand why: Public servants have been demoralized by years of partisan bickering in Congress and by the furloughs they have had to take as a result.
From one perspective, perhaps public employees have little to complain about: Their wages are about the same as those of private-sector employees with their same skills and education, a point I emphasized while I was serving in government. Recent research shows, though, that it is misleading to look only at wages, because federal employee benefits are more generous than those of private-sector workers.
A January 2012 report from the Congressional Budget Office documents that when you account for benefits, federal workers’ total compensation is about 16 percent higher than that of comparable workers outside government. (That average difference, by the way, masks significant variations by education; compared with their private-sector counterparts, federal workers with professional degrees earn much less, and those with high school diplomas earn much more.)
Despite the higher average compensation, however, morale is lower in the federal workplace than in the private sector, and this gap has widened noticeably over the past several years, surveys show. The biggest differences are observed in answers to questions such as “How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job?” and “How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization?”
Consistent with these comparisons is data from the Best Places to Work survey indicating that the crucial driver of federal employee satisfaction and commitment is effective leadership. This year, government employees scored their senior leaders an average 45 points out of a possible 100 for leadership.
One reason federal workers are frustrated with their senior leadership is that the government isn’t doing much of substance. People are attracted to public service in no small part because they believe government can be a force for good; when the government does little, that belief is harder to sustain. Similarly, political polarization and a general decline in public expectations for government make it harder to attract talented people to lead the bureaucracy.
Some agencies buck the trend. NASA, for example, remained in first place this year among large government agencies — even though the agency has faced substantial budget constraints and questions about what it should accomplish in the years ahead. We should study what NASA is doing right, along with other agencies where morale is extraordinarily good or improving. (Some changes in agency rankings from year to year are undoubtedly statistical illusions, especially for agencies so small that a shift in the views of even a couple dozen respondents can make a difference. That may explain the decline in rankings at my previous agency, the Office of Management and Budget.)
Like any business, government does better with workers who are not dispirited, but passionate and excited about what they do. This year’s Best Places to Work rankings should therefore serve as a warning. The results regarding senior leadership are particularly worrisome; many senior leaders in government are reaching or are already past retirement age, and a broader effort is needed to recruit, develop and retain senior talent. More broadly, the rankings should, as part of the broader Moneyball for Government effort to promote evidence-based policy making, guide efforts to establish a more engaged, productive federal workforce.
Peter Orszag is vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.