Feds' morale drops, survey says

Brookings findings could have implications for new homeland department

"The Troubled State of the Federal Public Service"

A new study by the Brookings Institution showing that morale is declining among federal employees has implications for the eventual success of the proposed Homeland Security Department.

The number of federal employees in civilian agencies who say they come to work "just for the paycheck" has risen from 31 percent last year to 41 percent this year, while 49 percent of those employees rated morale in the workplace now as "somewhat low" or "very low," according to "The Troubled State of the Federal Public Service," presented at a Brookings' Center for Public Service press conference June 27.

While Defense Department employees report a greater sense of purpose since the terrorist attacks, other federal employees "are looking around their agencies and saying, 'Nothing's changed here,' " said Paul Light, the center's director and author of the survey report.

The decline in federal employee morale has an impact on the federal government's ability to attract and retain highly skilled workers, particularly in the intelligence and information technology fields, said Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, who also spoke at the press conference.

"Now we have this huge new Homeland Security Department that we're trying to build and that in itself is a real issue in terms of employment," Thompson said. "Our national security rests on a foundation of good, capable, knowledgeable people working for the government. In the private sector, these people can often make many, many times the salary the government pays. They need to be motivated to serve their country."

The study is unique because it involved telephone surveys of the same random sample of federal government employees both before and after Sept. 11, according to Light. The employees were called at home first from February 2001 to June 2001 and again from March 2002 to May 2002.

The survey's findings include:

n The number of Defense employees who strongly agreed that they are given the chance to do what they do best increased by 14 percentage points between 2001 and 2002 to 59 percent, while the number of non-Defense employees who said the same thing fell 6 points, to 38 percent, during the same period.

n The number of federal employees overall who agreed that there are too many layers of supervisors and managers between employees and top management rose 7 points, from 39 percent to 46 percent, from 2001 to 2002.

n And 34 percent of federal employees overall said they always have the technology to do their jobs well, down slightly from 35 percent in 2001.

"Federal employees look in the mirror, and they see a beleaguered workforce," Light said.

John Palguta, vice president of policy and research for Partnership for Public Service, an organization that aims to boost the prestige of public service, called the survey findings "disappointing but not surprising."

"I really do believe a lot of the federal workforce comes to government out of a sense of public service. They want to do something good," Palguta said. "But when they find themselves in a work environment where they feel they're not doing that, we see a lot of frustration."

Thompson supports a provision in President Bush's proposal for a Homeland Security Department that would create a human resources system with "enhanced management flexibility" to hire, retain and fire federal employees, but he acknowledged that the provision has drawn the ire of federal employees' unions, which say it would eliminate civil service protections.

Managers in 18 federal agencies already have that flexibility, however, "and they're not in bad shape," he said. "It's not a revolution we're talking about here."

***

The Sept. 11 effect

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal employees report decreased satisfaction with their jobs and lower morale among their co-workers, according to a survey by the Brookings Institution. Here are some of the findings:

"Since Sept. 11, the people I work with have more of a sense of purpose." 42% Governmentwide ... 63% Defense ... 35% Non-Defense

"My job is more rewarding since Sept. 11." 19% Governmentwide ... 30% Defense ... 15% Non-Defense

"My job is more challenging since Sept. 11." 31% Governmentwide ... 45% Defense ... 26% Non-Defense

"My job is more stressful since Sept. 11." 37% Governmentwide ... 46% Defense ... 34% Non-Defense

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