Improving Morale in Gov? Not Impossible

Earlier this month, the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings were released by the Partnership for Public Service, based on data from OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. NASA was rated the best large agency to work for, FDIC was chosen as the best mid-sized agency, and the Surface Transportation board comes in as the best in the small agency category. Among agency subcomponents, the best place to work is the Office of the General Counsel at FERC.

So who came out the worst in the survey? Employees. According to the survey, across the federal workforce, only 56.9 percent of employees are satisfied with their jobs and would recommend their employer. That’s the lowest satisfaction score since the rankings began in 2003. There are a number of factors that play into this including pay freezes, a slowdown in hiring, lack of recognition, lack of confidence in workplace leadership, and the lingering effects of 2013’s shutdown and sequestration.

Some experts are blaming the Obama administration and Congress for low morale, saying that there are many steps they could have taken to stem this problem before it began. A few agencies of note have stepped up to take matters into their own hands, including the Labor Department, which used to rank near the bottom of the list. There, leaders are holding one-on-one meetings with employees to get their views of how things are working, what isn’t working, and what changes they’d like to see. There is also a suggestion box, and a program that allows interested employees to spend a few months working in a different job within the agency. The hard work is paying off: this year, the Labor Department ranks 10th among large agencies, up from 17th in 2013.

The changes made at the Labor Department aren’t huge or costly, but they do have a significant impact on job satisfaction. Here, I offer some other ideas for bumping up your own employee satisfaction score.

  1. Focus on the little things: Public sector workers come to government because they want to make a difference, not a million dollars. So when costly raises and monetary incentives aren’t feasible, think about little ways to let your employees know that you appreciate them. Walk the floor and say “good morning” or “how are things going?” or “thank you.” Offer small incentives or rewards like certificates for top performers, group recognition for reducing backlog, etc. Or have an all-staff potluck periodically to give everyone a chance to relax and celebrate their accomplishments.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open: A big takeaway from the report was that employees don’t feel supported by their leaders. It’s important to let your workers know that while you’re in charge, they should feel comfortable coming to you with concerns or problems, and that you’ll go to bat for them. Keep employees engaged by opening a suggestion box, having walk-in office hours, or holding a once-a-month brown bag “lunch with the boss” to give workers a forum for discussing whatever is on their minds, even if it isn’t work related. When changes are made, communicate those in advance, be honest about any repercussions, and constantly update information as needed.
  3. Invest in your workers: Offer trainings, webinars, workshops, and on-the-job shadowing to interested employees who want to grow their skills. Pay particular attention to the high performers who desire leadership positions and those already serving as managers. At NASA, they run a one-year part time leadership development program for those at the GS-11 and GS-12 level. At the Patent and Trademark Office (another top-performer in the rankings), front-line managers go through a training program that is focused on leadership, coaching, and mentoring.
  4. Make a comfortable space to work: It might not be feasible to overhaul your office layout and buy new furniture, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t reconfigure meeting rooms to be more conducive to group think, make a more comfortable break space that people actually want to be in, or just keep the office clean and tidy. And if it works for your team, allow your staff to telework—be it from home or a coffee shop.
  5. Connect workers to the mission: Studies have shown that when employees understand how their work contributes to the overall goals of the agency, effort put into the job and overall satisfaction increase. So offer employees concrete examples of the difference they are making on a daily basis.
  6. Empower your employees: When possible, give employees the ability to make decisions or implement their own ideas. When change has to come from the management level, bring together groups of employees to drive these changes and request input and feedback from employees. Allow those who are going to do the work influence the way the work gets done.
  7. Make short-term gains with long-term goals: Sure it’s good to have a long-term strategy for improving morale. And you can communicate that to employees, but when someone knows they aren’t going to see change for another two years, it isn’t very motivating. So create a long-term plan, but install more short-term programs into it. This might be the suggestion box or the reward certificates—anything that helps employees see that they are valued today.
  8. Focus on what you can control: It’s probably well out of your control to give across-the-board pay raises, extra vacation days, or move everyone to a newer, more spacious building. So instead, focus on what you can do to improve job satisfaction from your level and implement those ideas today.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great tips! Sometimes it’s just the little things that mean a lot to employees. Sometimes all you need to do is to ask them what would make their job more engaging. If they care, they will share!

Brady Reed

In full disclosure, I know work part-time for the FranklinCovey company. However, I’m using the Covey Speed of Trust cards daily with my Government staff and even the ad-hoc teams I lead. It’s a public declaration of what we value and the behaviors that show it. I also let anyone on my team to call me out when my own words or deeds don’t set the right example. It works! Leaders need only the courage to try it!

Adelo Vant

When I look at management; I see, the entitled career-centric leaders of the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, Army, Congress … performing great feats of magical zilch by self-proclaimed attributions for the exceptional hard work of pack-mules, worker-bees, colleagues …, while promoting their affirmation peers to greater wage-rewards.

How do you improve morale in Government?
Make sure promotions are tightly-coupled to actual performance.


As a federal employee who works under one of the agencies with lowest morale to date, I think these are great ideas and wish they would be conveyed through OPM, the White House, and all the heads of the Departments and their agencies. I also think it’s time to move into the 21st century where people are working more from home for many reasons. I also think certain job titles should have a new additional “benefit” “feature”, etc. and that they can be on call during certain times of the year (such as around major holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years) where they do not need to come in the office if nothing if going on or they do not have urgent work to do. This would allow that 1 employee to not be alone, to have freedom and flexibility, save money on gas, possibly save miles on car, and be with family or doing things around the house and yard if they choose. They would just need to be ready to go into the office if something did arise or was needed. I think this shows trust, confidence and appreciation in both small and large ways. Just some ideas…have plenty more.