Agency leaders 'on a mission' to pump up employee morale

Thursday - 5/8/2014, 3:37pm EDT

From left, Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service president; Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker; Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson; Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta; Labor Secretary Tom Perez. (Photo: Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

Federal employees are growing increasingly frustrated with budget cuts, stagnant pay levels and a negative perception of the federal bureaucracy, government surveys reveal.

Agency heads say they're getting the message loud and clear.

"One of the terrible things that is occurring is this notion that the federal government doesn't matter," Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said at a townhall event hosted by the Partnership for Public Service as part of Public Service Recognition Week. "And it gets translated into people who work for the federal government don't matter."

Pritzker was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta to discuss how to improve employee morale.

"There are lot of people outside the Beltway — and inside the Beltway — who look on the federal government as a large bureaucracy that doesn't really work for them," Johnson said. "And that's a perception that doesn't comport with reality."

Johnson, who's led the agency for about six months, said he's "on a mission" to turn around employee morale in DHS. In annual rankings of the "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government," the agency has typically fared poorly, scoring last among large agencies.

Among the top of his morale-boosting priorities is working to fill leadership vacancies that once dotted the department. Since Johnson was confirmed in December, the Senate has approved six additional high-level positions at the agency.

"I think good leadership starts with finding other good leaders. ... We're injecting a new energy in the department," he said.

In addition, he's promoting "greater transparency" in promotion, training and mentoring opportunities, he said.

"We're bringing back the various awards programs within DHS," Johnson said. The purpose of the awards isn't always monetary.

"I think thanking people for a job well done is good," he said. "I believe in constructive criticism and feedback, but thanking someone for a job well done is critical.

DOL also relaunched its employee-recognition awards, which had been "mothballed for years," Perez said. New this year is an "innovation award," to reward forward-thinking employees.

"We don't have this largesse to say 'thank you' in the form of a raise and things of that nature," Perez said. "But there are other things you can do to send a very unmistakable message that 'Your input matters and as a result of your ingenuity, we're getting better.'"

Feds struggle under budget woes

But there's a limit to what secretaries can do on their own, they said.

"There are certain life-pay issues that I can't solve alone," Johnson said. "I need the Congress to help me with that, obviously."

Federal workers received a slight 1 percent uptick in across-the-board pay levels in January after a three-year pay freeze. President Barack Obama has requested another 1 percent pay raise for next year as well.

In addition, federal agencies have been forced to tighten the purse strings in recent years. Last year, across-the-board sequestration cuts left many agencies stretched thin and understaffed.

"Austerity has consequences," Perez said. "This is the first economic recovery that I'm aware of ... in which government hiring has actually gone down," he said. "If we had just stayed flat, we'd have 600,000 more people in the workplace."

The two-week government shutdown last fall only added insult to injury.

"It's not sustainable to ask folks to continue to work in an environment where you don't give them the resources to do their job and you tell them, 'I'm sorry, please go away for two weeks and we may or may not pay you,'" Pritzker said. "That's just not tenable, it's not supportable and ... we cannot accept that as business as usual."

"Tell us we have less budget — that's fine," she added. "Then let us manage to that." But the government shutdown and budget showdowns are "very challenging and disrespectful to the people who work for us."

But even with frustration over pay raises and dwindling budgets, federal employees remain committed to their jobs, Archuleta said. In fact, according to OPM's annual Employee Viewpoint Survey, the scores measuring how engaged federal employees are in their work have generally held steady. More than 95 percent of respondents to the survey said they were willing to put in extra effort to get the job done and another 90 percent said they felt the work they do is important.

"I just want to be sure as we talk about the morale of federal employees, I don't want that to be confused with how engaged federal employees are," Archuleta said. "We have given them some very, very difficult situations. We've taken away some of the resources they need to get the job done, because we, as managers, have to make hard decisions. But every day they show up. And every day they're dedicated to what they're doing."