Is federal leadership on the decline?

shuttle columbia

NASA may be keeping a lower profile with the end of the shuttle program, but it's still rated the top agency for effective leadership, a survey finds. (NASA photo)

A new study shows that federal employees are increasingly unhappy with agencies' top brass, and few hold their senior leaders in high regard. But according to one expert, turning around that trend starts with one simple step: clear communication.

Analysis by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte found that although federal employees have never given their leaders particularly high marks, satisfaction with leadership dropped in 2012 for the first time since the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study was launched in 2003. The leadership score was 52.8 on a scale of 100, 2.1 points lower than in 2011. The research is based on data from the Office of Personnel Management's 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Best Places to Work

Read the 2012 survey

Government bashing and budget cuts remain the main reasons for the slipping numbers, said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. "For leadership in government, these problems from the outside make it harder for them to engage with employees in these troubling times," he said.

Senior leaders across government scored only 46.7 out of 100 -- 2.6 points lower compared to the previous year. Only four of 10 employees said their senior leaders could motivate employees, while fewer than half said they get clued in by senior leaders on what is happening in the agency. Just half of the respondents said they respected their senior leaders and that those leaders were honest and had integrity.

graphic showing leadership trends

The Partnership for Public Service survey shows the recent drop in opinion of agency leadership.

First-line supervisors were slightly better at effective leadership than more senior managers. In 2012, supervisors scored 62.3 out of 100, more than 15 points higher than senior leaders. Yet, satisfaction with supervisors still dropped 1.6 points from the 2011 score.

Overall, six of 19 large agencies showed a boost in their effective leadership score. NASA (68.1), the intelligence community (63.1) and the State Department (59.5) scored the highest, while the departments of Labor (50.7), Veterans Affairs (47.5) and Homeland Security (45.7) ranked last.

"Not only does NASA top the list but the agency saw an improvement in scores from previous years," Stier said. "Even with the difficult times we have, it's possible to have great, effective leaders."

NASA's recipe for effective leadership is based on good communication and providing a clear vision of where the agency is going and the roadblocks ahead, Stier said. "Leaders may not have all the answers, but they do need to communicate to employees on a regular basis about the challenges they're facing," he said.

The low numbers for DHS might be troubling, but all hope is not lost, Stier said. "What any agency at the bottom of the list has to do is examine why it isn't effectively connecting with its employees. So much is around good communication -- and not just one-way communication."

The report's recommendations for how agency leaders can improve the workplace include empowering employees and making them feel valued.

"By and large, in the federal government, good management is frequently not a priority," Stier said. "Agencies are consumed by the immediate and the urgent, and [they] don't pay attention to the long-term importance of the quality of leadership or the time being spent managing."

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jun 27, 2013 earth

I really cannot say I have seen “leadership” in the federal government since Benjamin Franklin died. The country has survived the predations and privations of the graduates from the diploma mills for the rich and powerful (AKA the Ivy League) in inverse proportion to the portion of those holding high positions. (Really, come up with a measure of “leadership” and draw a graph for yourself.) If we replaced them with successful FAMILY farmers we could probably do away with the “congress of NO” and the “unbreakable foreign relationships” executives and the politicized, party line vote, supreme court. The longest running US war was executed “off budget” with “single source contracting” “to protect Israel”, REALLY!!! Lower level government employees are being furloughed to pay for the mismanagement and inability of congress to pass a budget, while wheelbarrows of money went missing in Iraq. Patent trolls are suing the mass transit authorities. And Apple got a patent on “rectangles with rounded edges” as if any real rectangle could have sharp edges at all levels of magnification much less centuries of “prior art”. Frankly, it has become the theater of the absurd. I actually heard a song about “proud to be a tea bagger”. Bees are dying in mass, the climate is passing an inflection point with the permafrost melting and what’s in the news? Political operatives changing computer records in Texas to time shift a vote so they can impose their morals on others. The US proxy war in Syria going south because we don’t want to arm the people we want to fight the war for us. And how the “security services” in the US and NYC have been spying on innocent US citizens because they don’t support our doing to others what we would go to war in mass against if someone did it to us. Communication isn’t the problem, stupidity, hypocrisy, misplaced loyalty, greed, wrath, pride … A rotting fish stinks from the head.

Fri, Apr 26, 2013

I can tell you by past experience - Cols and Lt Cols are retiring and taking higher level management positions (GS14 and 15 positions - over 100K salaried positions) from those that have worked years to get to that level. It does not seem fair that these folks are getting paid twice from our federal government and not a small pittance either.....retirement as a Col and a GS15 salary - I cannot even begin to calculate that exorbitant amount our taxpayers are paying.

Fri, Apr 5, 2013 Government Emp 101

Communications is a big issue. But the knowing 'how' to communicate is very important. I have seen high-level management send out daily communication but with no real value. That causes apathy just as effectively as no communications. And, as some of the other respondents indicated, there will always be some managers who never should have been. I find in our organization that a main cause for this that the positions are not desirable due to office politics and lack of autonomy. How unfortunate that qualified people in the organization won't applied because they fear a management position.

Thu, Apr 4, 2013

I know there are some good leaders in the federal government; however, they are far and few. Having said that, what tends to stand out most with senior managers, is there inability to make a decision without it being collective. In other words, they tend to think with one brain. Needless to say, it's not a good thing!

Thu, Apr 4, 2013

Our department hires a new manager. After, arriving here, he started to build trust with us. He created an atmosphere of respect and fair treatment, and had a well received plan to move us forward. He had a lot of integrity and morale was lifted. They fired him. Moral of this story, Good leaders need not apply.
Corrupt leadership will run you out.

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