FEMA turns to data to fix employee morale problem

Friday - 7/27/2012, 12:52pm EDT

Low morale among FEMA employees prompted the agency to use data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to figure out why its workers are so unhappy.

Last year, FEMA ranked 231 out of 241 agencies in the Best Places to Work rankings, compiled by the Partnership for Public Service and based on the Viewpoint Survey. The agency has consistently been near the bottom of the rankings in previous years as well.

"We show up in people's lives at the biggest moment of crisis and we've got to have people showing up who've got smiling faces, who are there with warm hearts and are happy to be there," said Carter Hewgley, FEMAStat director in the Office of Policy and Program Analysis, at a Thursday discussion at the Next Generation of Government Summit in Washington.

Several themes surfaced from digging into the survey data, Hewgley said. Among the positive findings, FEMA employees feel mission-driven and connected to the work they do. Employees also say they get feedback on their performance.

However, employees expressed dissatisfaction with agency leadership, the fairness of performance reviews and opportunities for professional development.

"I think the leadership, I don't know if it was surprised, but more so disappointed that the employees were saying, 'I don't necessarily feel like they're making decisions based on merit.' So those kinds of questions, I think, [agency leaders] took incredibly seriously and wanted to communicate to employees, 'We've heard you,'" Hewgley said in an interview with Federal News Radio.

This year, FEMA started televising its leadership meetings — as well as the FEMAStat meetings Hewgley runs — on an internal channel for employees. Those meetings will soon be webcast and captioned as well.

FEMA is also soliciting input from employees through IdeaScale, an online platform for employees to write about their suggestions and get comments from other employees.

The deep-dive look at the survey data has sparked a culture of two-way conversation, Hewgley said.

"Let's open up the doors, let's open up the conversation and open up the dialogue, make it obvious we welcome that participation," he said.

Full workforce picture

The Viewpoint Survey was generally representative of FEMA's headquarters staff, Hewgley said.

However, the survey left out a large portion of FEMA staff — disaster reservists. These employees, who are on call when a crisis strikes, number about 10,600 out of a total of 17,700 employees, according to the 2012 State of FEMA report.

This year, reservists are taking the survey as well. By the end of this year, FEMAStat team expects to combine the data from the disaster reservist responses with the rest of the workforce to get a full picture of the FEMA workforce.

"It's going to be interesting because the disaster workforce has an entirely different experience and orientation to the agency that the permanent workforce," Hewgley said.

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