FEVS: You Can’t Fix It When Leaders Say It Isn’t Broken

The author says that possible filtering of the FEVS response data causes opportunities for improvement to be missed.

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) is a tool widely used by the US federal government to gather feedback from employees on various aspects of their work experience.

The upcoming FEVS survey is scheduled for May 2023 and is expected to cover a wide range of topics, including employee engagement, job satisfaction, leadership effectiveness, and communication within the workplace. The data collected from the survey will provide valuable insights to federal agencies and their leaders to help them identify areas for potential improvement and make data-driven decisions to enhance the work environment for federal employees.

Purpose of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS)

The survey is, or at least should be, an important opportunity for federal employees to have their voices heard and to contribute to a better workplace for themselves and their colleagues.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) invests time and resources in administering the survey to thousands of employees, across all federal organizations, to gain valuable insights into their experiences and perceptions of the workplace. 

The FEVS helps the federal government to understand the needs and concerns of its employees and to develop strategies to address them.

For example, if the survey results reveal that employees feel there is a lack of communication or transparency within their agency, an organization can take action to improve communication channels and provide more transparency. Similarly, if the survey shows that employees feel they are not being given enough opportunities for professional growth and development, the organization can develop training programs or mentorship opportunities to address these concerns.

Ultimately, the FEVS is a powerful tool for the federal government to ensure that its employees are satisfied and engaged in their work. By acting on the results of the survey, organizations can improve the quality of the work environment, reduce turnover, and increase productivity, ultimately benefiting both the employees and organization as a whole.

Are the FEVS Response Data Filtered?

In the 2022 Governmentwide Management Report available from OPM that accompanies the FEVS results, they list (page 6) the “Lowest Percentages of Positive Responses”. In the OPM version, they specify “these items with low scores indicating aspects of Federal government agencies where employees may perceive the need for change.”

In the attached Typical Org Report, they use the term “ Highest Percent Negative”, which is not the same thing as Lowest Percentages of Positive Responses put forward by OPM and presents the items in such a way that most of them would seem statistically insignificant.

It appears that all of the neutral responses have been omitted, which is contrary to how OPM designed the survey. A neutral response in truth is also an opportunity toward improvement and excellence.

I have included the report from the agency I recently retired from, but I would carefully point out that based on my observation, it would appear that many federal agencies are filtering the OPM data and results in a similar fashion. My former agency is by no means unique in what they are disseminating out to staff. Staff need to have confidence their voice is being heard.

Listing of 2022 FEVS responses showing filtered and unfiltered response data

If I were a branch chief out in a Division reading Question 44 “I believe the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work.” and were looking at the OPM report, I would see that 43% of responders governmentwide did not give a positive response, a very significant number, and as a leader I would definitely be looking at ways I could positively impact that outcome in future surveys for my team, my branch, my Division or my even my Department.

If I were to look at the Typical Org results, I would see that only 13.5% of responders gave a negative response, which is noteworthy but probably statistically insignificant, and as a leader I would likely look elsewhere for ways to improve the results for my organization. At 13.5%, it is likely I would look for something more impactful and substantial and maybe that was the intent.

We seem to have removed the 21.9% neutral responses (neither positive or negative), which from a statistical perspective is questionable and would likely skew the results. I think at the very least this is putting the results in a different light than what OPM had intended and is possibly misrepresenting the actual results. Neutral responses cannot and should not be removed or discounted as they represent the direct feedback of our staff members. Positive, negative, or neutral, they all need to be heard. As seen there are many similar examples.

The other thing that would concern me is that the OPM report indicates that for those Lowest Percentages of Positive Responses, “Government leaders and oversight bodies review low scores to make decisions and determine actions for improving workplace functions and conditions (e.g., items related to performance and communication)”. The Typical Org version doesn’t really get into mitigation. I am sure that this was not their intent, but it is how it appears, at least to me.

The Importance of Differences in Survey Results

The difference between survey results that show the lowest percentages of positive responses versus the highest percentage of negative responses can be significant in terms of identifying areas for improvement in the workplace.

When there are low percentages of positive responses, it can indicate areas where employees are not satisfied or feel their needs are not being met. This could include areas such as communication, leadership, work-life balance, or opportunities for growth and development, but in disregarding neutral responses, what a reader sees in reading the provided report is likely not indicative of what staff members are experiencing.

When there are high percentages of negative or neutral responses, it can indicate significant problems or issues within the workplace that require urgent attention. These issues could include things such as discrimination, harassment, lack of resources or support, or a toxic work culture.

In such cases, immediate action may be required to address the underlying issues, or to create a safe and supportive work environment. Removing the neutral responses and instead putting forward the Highest Percent Negative serves to mask urgent issues and again, misrepresent what federal staff are experiencing.

And just an aside on response rate, each year there is a strong push to drive response rate, often to the point of badgering. There is no doubt that response rate is important, or at least should be, but if there are no efforts or actions coming out of the provided survey feedback, response rate means little to nothing. If the survey results are not driving actions, the value in doing the survey is severely diminished. 

Every year OPM administers the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) and each year organizations and their senior leadership have the opportunity to identify opportunities for improvement and required actions, based on the provided feedback. Remember, that feedback is gold!

Where is FEVS taking you and your organization in 2023? It might be time to dig into that. 

About the Author

Brian Canning recently retired from the National Institutes of Health (DHHS) as a Change Management Specialist in addition to 30 years in the automotive repair industry with many senior leadership positions. He has been a business consultant and leadership coach and has over 70 articles published, mostly on leadership and business process.