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More Feds Should Say Yes to the FEVS

Last week the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced the roll out of this year’s government-wide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). However, did you know that over half of all feds disregarded the FEVS in 2013? That’s a paltry participation rate.

Worse yet, some agencies had a shockingly low rate of under 30% of employees participating in the survey. This is simply unacceptable. So why aren’t more feds saying yes to the FEVS?

There appear to be a confluence of factors to explain this, including:

  • Low job satisfaction and sagging morale,
  • Employee disengagement and indifference,
  • Privacy concerns related to potential retaliation, and
  • Frustration with agency managers and supervisors, among other indicators.

Many feds are still demoralized and may feel like proverbial punching bags — and for good reason. Feds have been beaten up by Congress, the news media, stakeholders and the general public for multiple years now.

Feds have been frozen out of pay raises, furloughed, shutout by shutdowns, downsized and forced to “do more with less” because of sequestration and fiscal austerity.

Greater Participation Needed Now

With all the hardships feds have had to endure for years should it really be a surprise that so many employees may feel apathetic? Ironically, such feelings of despondence and detachment are likely causes of low FEVS participation. Thus it appears this may be a viscious cycle.

But despite the melancholy mood, more feds need to lift up their chins and participate in the FEVS without delay. Participation remains critically important in providing a key barometer to assess dozens of employee issues within the federal workforce.

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said in announcing this year’s FEVS:

  • “The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is essential to advancing the Administration’s commitment to employee engagement in a high-performing government. The survey is a way for employees to communicate openly and honestly with Federal leaders.”
  • “This engagement is an important part of the President’s Management Agenda that commits to better understanding our Federal workforce to help find areas where we are succeeding and find places where we can improve.”

However, agency leaders at the highest levels need to set the stage for more employee participation, as Federal Times pointed out in a recent editorial (An underused tool for building a better government):

  • “In recent years, the FEVS survey results have shown troubling signs of an increasingly demoralized workforce. Virtually all measures of satisfaction are flat or trending downward.”
  • “Given the turmoil many feds feel these days, it is more vital than ever that agency leaders embrace the FEVS survey as the strategic asset it is capable of being.”

Gold Standard of Federal Surveys

It’s important to recognize the FEVS is still the only major government-wide survey of its kind, one in which feds can make their voices heard anonymously. Moreover, feds are allowed to take the survey during their official work hours. This is another incentive which should not be ignored.

Still, some feds may be wary of confidentiality assurances during a time in which employee monitoring, invasions of online privacy and hacking into federal computer networks are more common than ever.

Nevertheless, the FEVS remains the gold standard for evaluating and assessing a broad range of data-rich variables which are government-wide and agency-specific. Higher participation rates in the FEVS may result in a better likelihood of systemic improvements going forward, not to mention at individual agencies.

Pulse of the Federal Workforce

In addition to OPM, the closely watched FEVS is used by other federal agencies, professional organizations and consultants to take the pulse of the workforce and pinpoint problem areas as well as positive ones.

Organizations such as the Partnership for Public Service meticulously crunch the FEVS data and release their own detailed agency-by-agency and gov-wide studies which delve deep into the state of the federal workplace.

But FEVS results may be misleading or inaccurate when fewer than 50% of feds participate gov-wide. This lack of participation makes it difficult to paint a more complete picture highlighting important areas in need of attention.

Addressing feds directly, OPM Director Archuleta stated, “Your input is more important than ever. You now have the opportunity to share your insights as a Federal employee, on your job, on your organization and on your working conditions. The success of your agency depends on you, and when it comes to understanding what it’s like to work in your agency, you are the expert.”

With this meaningful message in mind let’s hope more feds say yes to the 2014 FEVS.

@DBGrinberg

  • NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public or private sector employer, organization or related entity.

David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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11 Comments

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Profile Photo Dr. Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

I do think the lower rate of participation could be the result of mistrust in the leadership and in OPM’s inaction. Federal employees may have felt that their opinions do not matter so they disengage from the process. OPM must take the lead in ensuring that the results of the FEVS will help OPM and agency leaders to make appropriate organizational changes. OPM needs to build trust and confidence in Federal employees that the Federal government and President Obama are serious about improving leadership and management as well as organizational culture and processes to strengthen the Federal workplace and public service!

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

All surveys are tacit promises: you tell me what’s bugging you, and I promise to fix it. That is, of course, why one of the cardinal rules of employee surveys is that you never ask about things you either can’t fix/change, or have no intention of fixing/changing, lest it be perceived as a broken promise.

When I helped in the design of our (Canadian) equivalent to the FEVS, back in 2002, we included a bunch of questions concerning harassment. And although the survey is launched every three years, we framed the questions such that they asked about the preceding two years. Why? Because we knew that it would take about 5 months or so for the survey data to be gathered by Statistics Canada, cleaned, sorted, and packaged for agency-consumption, that it would take another few months for those agencies to comprehend their individual results, and another few months on top of that for them to identify critical issues, develop, and implement intervention designed to address those issues. Since one of the goals of the survey is to be able to monitor and measure improvements, we felt it important to measure what had potentially changed since the implementation of the intervention. Hence, while we could have asked about the three years since the last survey, we asked about the preceding two years since the agency had responded to the survey, thereby keeping old and revised workplace climates separate.

Why am I telling you this? Because there are many workplace issues that take a while to actually respond to and do something about. One of the corollaries of the survey principle of not asking about things you can’t do anything about, is that you don’t ask again about something before you’ve had any opportunity to do anything productive or meaningful about it. Makes as much sense as shoving a piping hot bowl of soup in front of a kid and asking them, every 20 seconds “So, how do you like the soup?”, before it has cooled down enough to actually taste it.

As well-intentioned, and a sign of good stewardship, as it may be to have the FEVS every year, the problem that invites is that it does not allow enough time for agencies to grapple with and intervene in any issues identified. And if I have identified issue X as really bugging me on the survey, and now a year later you’re asking me again, and my own experience is that nothing has really changed since I told you it bugged me, you have broken that tacit promise. Underneath it all, you may be hard at work trying to fix that problem, but my experience, from the employee side, is that you are insincere in repeatedly asking, because I’m not seeing the change….yet. The same questions, asked 2, or maybe 3 years apart, might be met with greater buy-in, simply by allowing some time for a meaningful response from management. Unfortunately, such surveys are often used for performance-pay purposes for senior managers, such that the tail of annual performance pay is wagging the dog of appropriate measurement of workplace climate.

If I bought Katherine Archuleta a coffee, and had 5 minutes of her time, I would strongly suggest to nudge the FEVS launch back to every other year. Not just to give agencies a chance to respond, and facilitate more buy-in from employees, but to provide an opportunity for more meaningful analysis. I’m a strong believer in the notion that data is like soup. It’s not enough to cook it until the vegetable are soft enough to chew. You have to let it simmer long enough to acquire a flavour and character, and that takes time. Rushing into analysis, and cranking out decks for management focusses too much attention on question-by-question analysis, and the real meat of what the survey tells you lies in the cross-tabbing, and seeing what goes together with what: the underlying patterns. A year does not afford nearly enough time to do that.

But, all of that said, if one feels, as an employee, that management and leadership needs to know what your workplace experience is like, there needs to be a means to provide that, and if you don’t fill out the survey, eventually they’ll stop asking…which doesn’t do anyone any good.

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

Incidentally, reasons for participation rates, and rates themselves, can vary widely. The staffing survey I work on these days had participation rates ranging from 34% to over 75% across over 50 federal organizations.

One of the predictors of participation is geographic location. The closer you are to HQ, the more interest one tends to have in such things. It’s also easier to drum up enthusiasm amongst folks in a 20-storey office tower in the capitol, than it is in a small district office, hundreds of miles from HQ. So, any agencies that are tightly clustered around DC are going to show high response rates, and agencies whose workforce is principally outside of DC will show lower rates.

As well, the closer one is to management, the more interested one tends to be in such surveys. Agencies with a preponderance of blue-collar types tend to have lower response rates. It is typically hard to crack the 30% response-rate barrier amongst blue collar staff, where management often respond at rates of 70% or better. Folks who work directly under management will respond in the 60%+ range.

Profile Photo Scott Kearby

Mark Hammer … I think you hit the nail squarely on the head. No one wants to waste their time and effort providing input that will not be sincerely considered and will not have any impact. After a couple of surveys, most folks will learn and will stop putting much real effort and thought into these surveys. Trust, once lost, takes significant effort to restore, especially when there is not much personal interaction between the OPM chief and most federal employees … so I think the leadership has a difficult road ahead. Maybe a good first step for Ms. Archuleta would be to read your remarks and then buy you a cup of coffee and get some input from someone who has dealt with this issue … that is if she really wants to make a difference and not just publish a report!

Profile Photo Terrence Hill

I agree with the previous comments. As someone who religiously submits my survey within minutes of receiving it, I am perpetually dissatisfied with the lack of actions resulting from this annual ritual. We need to acknowledge that the survey is merely takes the pulse of workforce. It doesn’t provide the solutions. That is where employees come in. Leadership needs to be willing to open themselves up to their employees. Until that happens, we will be stuck in this perpetual cycle of disappointing annual survey results.

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

Thanks, gents. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that spacing surveys too closely together does not mean management isn’t doing anything. Rather it can create the impression that they aren’t…and that can sometimes be just as destructive. As Scott appropriately points out, people may only be our second most valuable resource, trust between people being more valuable.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Mark, Phuong, Scott and Terry:

Thanks so much for your valuable feedback and important insights, which are very much appreciated. You all raise some excellent points that should be part of the larger discussions and deliberations by the folks who prepare and coordinate the FEVS.

My recommendation involves concrete follow-up actions once the survey results are released. Agencies should not only assess their individual FEVS results, but also form internal work groups to examine the core reasons related to poor results and reach out to employees agency-wide to embark on a wide-ranging open dialogue about problem areas — in addition to recognizing positive the results.

These internal work groups should be designated specifically by the agency head to display leadership from the top. The work groups should be comprised of a broad range of staff from rank-and-file employees to mid and upper level managers, as well as union members. The work groups should include staff from HQ and the field.

Once the work groups are established they can create an internal process to solicit and receive employee feedback on possible actions to address the top problem areas and then have an interactive discussion about them. The work group would then formulate proposed remedies and action-items for the agency head to review and approve in order to further address and remedy the problem areas.

Internal communication is key throughout this process, as all employees must know they have a personal stake in outcomes. Employees need feel that their voices are being heard. Thus leadership from the top is critically important.

The work groups could also coordinate with HQ and individual field offices “listening sessions” and/or town hall-style meetings to delve further into the reasons behind the poor results on a micro and macro level. It would also be helpful for employee engagement to have an intranet page for feedback and ideas. Moreover, the agency head could hold periodic “listening sessions” with randomly selected staff at all levels. If nothing else, this will demonstrate strong commitment and leadership from the top-down.

The work groups would subsequently issue a report to the agency head with proposed action-items based on the information and feedback received on an agency-wide basis.

At a minimum, this process would reassure employees that some action is being taken to remedy the leading problem areas — rather than just putting the FEVS results on a shelf to gather dust. Moreover, employees would feel that their concerns are being addressed through an open dialogue agency-wide which provides their direct input and participation in the process.

In sum, the FEVS results should not be the end of the process but the beginning of a more acute strategy to create model workplaces and best practices to improve employee satisfaction levels, in addition to pinpointing and addressing agency specific problem areas.

This internal work group follow-up approach to the FEVS should help boost employee engagement, morale and motivation for the agency’s mission with renewed vigor. Again, strong and visible leadership from the top is critically important to making sure that employees’ voices are heard and respected by management.

As always, internal communication on an agency-wide level from the field to HQ is absolutely essential at every stage of this process.

  • Does YOUR agency do this or something similar? Should it?
  • Any other suggestions for follow-up action to the FEVS results?
Profile Photo Henry Brown

I am directly out of the loop now but I still hear from my co-workers in the previous two agencies and don’t believe that the attitude has gotten any different since I retired

Agree that as long as management, at most levels does very little with the results.

IMO The general attitude is “you task me with all these tasks while paying me no more than I was making 2 or 3 years ago and yet you expect me to complete this survey when you are not going to do anything about the negative trending numbers

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

There are, as I see it, essentially two basic meta-models underlying the use of organizational surveys.

On the one hand, you can view such surveys through the lens of “accountability”. Viewed in this way, managers and officials tend to think largely in terms of whether or not they are “in trouble”. I find that the focus tends to be on a question-by-question basis, as in “What percentage negative did we get on this item?”. Deeper analysis is generally not pursued, and folks are sensitive about things that might look bad. Once the individuals accountable for the results feel themselves out of the woods, interest in the survey results falls away PDQ.

Viewed through a lens of “corporate intelligence”, where the idea is to learn more about how the organization works, and what causes what, analysis tends to be deeper, more multivariate in nature, and more lessons drawn from the data arising. The time frame of interest is also longer, and there is less panic about what gets released publicly.

When results are tied to performance pay, it is difficult to dislodge people from the accountability lens and direct them to the corporate intelligence approach. But the payoff can be huge if you do, largely because it can teach you what to infer about the meaning of troubling results, and point the way towards effective interventions.

Case in point. Fifteen years ago we asked federal employees about discrimination, and the % of visible minority employees who said they had been discriminated against was troubling (NOTE: the definition of “visible minority” under the law in Canada encompasses persons of Asian, Hispanic, African, and many other origins). But what WAS that discrimination? I muse a bit and determine that, among many reasons, people are more likely to perceive discrimination when a limited resource is inequitably distributed. I look in our survey for something that could be considered a limited resource whose distribution might be inequitable. I see that we asked employees whether they had requested, and been granted, a developmental assignment (granting or refusing permission for an employee to go off on an assignment elsewhere falls within the purview of a manager). I look at the %-refusal rate for both minority and non-minority employees for all those agencies for which I have enough cases to provide reliable estimates, calculate the absolute difference, and son of a gun if the perceived discrimination rate amongst minority employees across agencies isn’t correlated .37 with the difference in their respective refusal rates within each agency. The more likely non-minorities were to be granted assignments, in comparison to minority employees, the greater the percentage of minority staff in that organization voicing discrimination. Here we had concrete evidence that perceptions of discrimination were informed by documentable outcomes in the area of career advancement. You would NEVER stumble onto that within the “accountability” framework, in a million years, because you need to look at the joint relationship between multiple variables, with an eye towards understanding how things work, not just whether the outcomes were good or bad, embarrassing or brag-worthy.

There is also more interest in using survey results as a resource. A former student of mine, then (2004) working in HR, calls me up and asks me if there is anything in the survey data that might be of use for a change-management exercise they were faced with. A new agency was being formed from a smaller one and chunks hived off of two larger organizations. I had work-unit level data for the entire government and whipped up a 3-column table with survey results for the two units that were being merged, and his organization. I went through it searching for those areas where the workplace culture between these respective organizations was different. Not “better” or “worse”, but different. I was able to flag a handful of areas where the culture was different enough that if you took a manager from org A and put them in charge of people coming from org B, there would be trouble because they each have conflicting expectations. We saw the expectations of what a “normal work week” consists of were different, we saw that expectations and rate of career advancement were different, and we saw that employee-supervisor relations were different. I recommended to the head of HR there to hip managers to these differences in micro-cultures.

Again, if you look at survey data through the lens of accountability, you will NEVER stumble onto these things. Indeed, it will probably never even occur to you that some sort of guidance could be provided by such data.

I could go on and on (you know I can! LOL), but I’ll leave it there. Jean Hartley’s paper from 2001 in the International Journal of Public Sector Management, entitled “Employee surveys: Strategic aid or hand-grenade for organisational and cultural change?” is a nice think piece to start from.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Mark, thank you again for all of your astute and insightful comments, which are very much appreciated. Thanks also for sharing the FLRA testimony. I think the main takeaways from the testimony are these:

  • “Employees and leadership undertook sincere, sustained efforts to focus on the core values of transparency and accountability. And we focused on mission accomplishment.”
  • “These were not pro forma efforts. They were real and substantive.”
  • “And they began with the recognition that from top to bottom and side to side, FLRA employees are deeply committed to the mission of the agency and the work they perform.”
  • “FLRA’s senior leadership clearly communicated its belief that its employees did important work and did it well.”
  • “This resonated with employees. It probably contributed to that difficult-to-describe synergy.”