Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why Feds' Morale Is Getting Worse (It's Only Partly Internal Communication)

"Two-thirds of all federal agencies experienced decreasing employee satisfaction." 
- Federal Times, Dec. 13, 2012

The Washington Post article on federal employees' morale led me to reflect on what seems to me like a downward trend. Here are my thoughts on the reasons why:

1 - Increased centralization under the new Administration for greater efficiency - less autonomy for individual agencies, less autonomy for leaders, less autonomy for managers, less autonomy for staff.  
2 - Discomfort with the rapid pace of change and new initiatives. This could be related to the Administration coming from "outside the Beltway" - e.g. traditional Beltway/Washington culture is much slower and more interpersonal vs. this Administration works rapidly and is very techno-centric. (This comment refers to management style not political ideology.)
3 - Increased scrutiny on (blaming of) federal employees due to the bad economy. Impatience with the civil service culture. Endless headlines about wasteful grants for shrimp on a treadmill. This goes back to #2.
4 - Restrictions on spending (like no more "tchotchkes") and budget - leading to lots of ideas but no money to do anything with them.
5 - Pay freeze, government shutdown, threat of sequestration. Generally the perception that we federal employees are constantly under siege.
6 - No money or time for serious training. 

  • #1 is technology - e.g. cloud-based collaboration - we can't seem to get out of the email. We should be out of it. Knowledge management. Data analysis. Visual presentation of information. Not happening. 
  • #2 is project management. Serious deficiency. 
  • #3 is critical thinking, which comes from advanced education, which should be on-site as a regular part of work. Ideally it would be college coursework - so that people can advance themselves as they advance the mission. 
7 - Inefficient or insufficient change management efforts. Lack of attention to organizational development, human capital, internal communication, alternative dispute resolution, meditation rooms, marking important events with ceremonies, culture committees. Times are changing rapidly, organizations are restructuring, and people expect a high level of customer service (like they get when they're not on the job when they go shopping or out to eat.) There is a growing disconnect.
I can think of other things too, such as the proliferation of social media (so that employees can complain and commiserate more easily and more publicly about stuff that has always been problematic - e.g. perceived lack of fairness in decision-making), but these seem like the biggest issues to me in terms of what's different now than before.
A good workplace is one-- 
  • Where people are happy to come to work in the morning
  • Where they are engaged in their work and in the mission
  • Where they are free to innovate
  • Where they can dissent and have their dissent listened to
  • Where they can point out fraud, waste and abuse and not get marginalized or worse. 
These are the kinds of things we should measure, manage and improve. One wonders if we would only put as much effort into employee morale as into annual charity campaigns like the CFC, whether we would see some productivity improvements as a result.

"All the research suggests that the more engaged employees are, the more productive they are." - John Palguta, VP, policy, Partnership for Public Service, quoted in Federal Times

It's not that one is more important than the other, but rather that you can't give back to the community effectively if your workforce is drained.

Note: All opinions are my own.