Is Federal Employee Morale Lower Than Usual?

The author says that over the last few years it seems the pride of public service has come under strain from changes to internal processes. He analyzes why he thinks this is the case as well as points out some reasons federal workers have to be optimistic despite the apparently lower morale.

Being in the DC area and having the opportunity to meet people from a variety of agencies and career levels, I can see there is an ongoing ebb and flow to the morale of the federal workforce. Work is work and there will always be politics and budget uncertainty, but over the last few years it seems the pride of public service has come under strain from changes to internal processes. Are the operations of federal government changing faster and more drastically than they have at any point in the past?

The strain certainly comes from outside factors as well. Hiring is slow, budgets are either being cut or being held up longer than in the past, the reports coming out in the press regarding particular agencies don’t always reflect the amount of effort surely being put forth, there was a shooting at Census, and of course the OPM data breach is a nightmare with no way around it, and it’s far from over.

Granted, the level of morale being low isn’t new information. Even before many of these events occurred, or at least were made public, morale was documented as low by Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® analysis from the Partnership for Public Service, and reported on by the Washington Post in December 2014. Among other interesting statistics put out by the report, it was said that employee satisfaction was its lowest level since the inception of the survey in 2003.

Leadership is often blamed. Even in the Washington Post article it is clearly implied that workers find this to be the most frustrating component. And from my travels I find this to be a potent reason for dissatisfaction, although having a boss you disagree with isn’t specific to federal employment by any means. But in the leadership data, and also specific leadership as it relates to the generic term of “fairness,” are actually the only two scores that have a higher rating among those surveyed since 2003.

Out of 14 categories covering a wide variety of topics like pay, work life balance, diversity, training, performance based rewards and other, Effective Leadership & Effective Leadership: Fairness are the only two that have gotten better since 2003.

So if it’s not the leaders than what is going on? Maybe it’s not a federal workforce issue as opposed to our overall society and workforce? Middle America being squeezed, cost of living going up, sandwich generation members among those in the most stressful of executive functions thereby making work and home life dually difficult. It would be understandable if no matter what you surveyed or who you asked morale might be down. But why? And what do we do about it?

I can think of 10 reasons why a member of the American workforce, public or private, should be at least as optimistic as any point in the history of our country. These aren’t all specific to federal employees but some are directly attributable to the hard work of a variety of agencies, especially in health. Those are lengthening life span, modern medicine, energy independence, strong movement toward environmental awareness, huge global lead in web based technologies, standard of living, diversity of industry, relative peace inside our borders, more mature demographics meaning a large segment of the population being adult, wise and educated as opposed to young, frustrated and overly idealistic, and finally capitalistic opportunity. Yes that still exists, certainly more so than practically any other country in the world. Technically in the most recent World Bank data in 2015 the United States ranked number 7 for entrepreneurship, however every country ahead of us have populations a fraction of ours and none currently are dealing with a constant mass migration toward their shores like we maintain so we must still be doing something right.

I can only think of one single reason why the entire American society would have reason for worsening morale on such a mass scale that potentially could affect an entire workforce like federal employees and can be considered a cause that is unique to our current times. And that is the quantity of negative information we now receive on a daily basis from such a variety of sources so as to be impossible to escape. It’s on our phones, even if we aren’t watching for it the news pops up. It’s on TV 24 hours a day, it’s even sometimes in our cars and on our watches. It is definitely rampant in our federal agencies and as more people hear more bad news locally and globally and they hear it repetitively from sources that constantly end the segment with no solution just questions for the audience to ponder what do they conclude? Well someone should fix that. How about the government?

About the Author

Brian Kuhn CFP® is a financial planner at in Maple Lawn, MD. He has been working with families since 2001 with a niche of federal employees. He is the author of The Personal Finance Handbook, a Guide to the Most Common Personal Finance Questions. Securities offered through Triad Advisors, Member FINRA / SIPC. Advisory Services offered through Planning Solutions Group, LLC. Planning Solutions Group, LLC is not affiliated with Triad Advisors. PSG Clarity is a division of Planning Solutions Group, LLC