Federal Employees Happier But Still Lag Private Sector

Which federal agencies are the best places to work and how does the federal work environment compare to the private sector?

As we reported yesterday, a new survey has been released by the Partnership for Public Service and American University ranking the best federal government agencies to work for throughout the federal government.

The gist of the report is that federal employees are generally happier than they were in the last survey and employee satisfaction ratings are improving rapidly. Obviously, there are federal employees who are unhappy and complain about a multitude of topics from pay to managerial competence to fears about having to work in a "pay for performance" system in the near future.

As often happens, those that are unhappy often speak out first and the first comments received from unhappy readers took issue with the report and questioned its validity.

Here is the basis for the validity of the report. The survey results were based on interviews by the Office of Personnel Management with some 150,000 federal employees across 250 federal organizations.

Here are some of the highlights of the survey results:

  • In 2005, one out of every three federal agencies scored higher in employee satisfaction and engagement than the private sector average, compared to just one of eight agencies in 2003.
  • Compared to workers in the private sector, federal employees are more likely to say they know that their work relates to the organization’s mission, their supervisors are supportive in balancing work and life issues, and the people they work with cooperate to get things done.
  • Overall, 75 percent of federal organizations experienced an increase in their scores between 2003 and 2005.
  • The three large agencies with the highest scores are the Office of Management and Budget (77.5), National Science Foundation (74.9) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (74.8).
  • The three subcomponents and small agencies with the highest scores are the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (81.2), and the San Francisco (80.5) and Seattle (78.4) regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • On average, employee engagement is up nine percent at the 30 largest federal agencies and five percent at smaller agencies and subcomponents.

Satisfaction with the workplace still lags behind the private sector though. One out of eight federal agencies scored higher than the private sector in the last survey two years ago. This time around, one out of three federal agencies scored higher than private companies.

Federal agencies scored higher than private companies in balancing work and family issues. Federal employees also work together better than their private sector counterparts to get things done and federal employees have a stronger link to the work they do with the overall mission of the organization according to the survey.

The biggest gap between agencies and companies was in rewarding high performing employees and resolving disputes fairly. In these areas, the government falls short.

This creates an interesting conundrum. In a recent survey, FedSmith.com readers said they prefer the current civil service structure in which everyone receives the same basis pay raise to a pay for performance system which would presumably reward higher performing employees more than those who did not perform as well. At the same time, one of the biggest failing of government in the survey results is that the government does not reward its best performers as well as the private sector.

No doubt, it will be interesting to see future results. While fear is rampant among federal employees in working under a "pay for performance" system rather than the current structure which relies largely on seniority, a revised civil service structure (which our surveys show readers think will happen) is likely to have an impact on key components of future survey results.