Workforce poll result 'disturbing'

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The number of federal employees in civilian agencies who say they come to work "just for the paycheck" has risen from 31 percent to 41 percent, according to a study to be released June 20 by the Brookings Institution.

"This is a deeply disturbing finding," Paul Light, vice president and director of the governmental studies program at Brookings, said June 4, presenting some of the study's preliminary results at an address to the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils' annual Management of Change conference in New Orleans.

The study involved more than 40,000 telephone calls made to federal employees at home from February through March 2001, and again from March to May of 2002, Light said. The same employees were interviewed both times, making the study findings particularly significant in that they present "two snapshots of the same group of people," he said.

In a healthy public service, employees come to work "because they are motivated by the right things," such as the opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile, said Light, an expert on federal management and senior adviser to a new commission on the federal workforce headed by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, the number of Defense Department employees who say they come to work because they wish to serve the common good or because they like to work with "good people" stayed the same, according to the survey. The number of DOD employees who feel they are personally contributing to the agency's mission is down, "but we think that's because they wish they could be working harder," Light said.

Federal employees aren't completely dissatisfied with their jobs, the study found. Most are "overwhelmingly convinced" that they have access to the appropriate technology to do their jobs well. Also, federal employees in the study estimated only 22 percent of their colleagues were not performing up to par.

That level of trust in federal employees, however, is not shared by the American public, Light said. In a poll of Americans' attitude toward their government, respondents said 41 percent of federal employees are not doing their jobs well, he said. Americans don't have the same attitude toward DOD employees, whom they perceive as working very hard, Light said. "Overall, some of these results present a troubling and disturbing portrait of the federal workforce, especially the part that doesn't work for the Defense Department," he added.

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