Morale drops among Defense Department's civilian workers

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Tia Dufour/U.S. Marine Corps file photo
Tia Dufour/U.S. Marine Corps file photo

Morale drops among Defense Department's civilian workers

by: Josh Hicks | .
The Washington Post | .
published: October 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — Civilian defense employees have grown increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs, and many wouldn't recommend their organization as a good place to work, according to the federal government's 2014 personnel survey.

Employee approval ratings for the Defense Department, the federal government's largest agency, dropped in 47 of 84 categories, according to a government workforce survey.

Paige Hinkle-Bowles, the Pentagon's head of civilian personnel policy, acknowledged in a memo to employees that the results of the annual worker survey revealed "challenges," but he said agency leadership is committed to addressing worker concerns through "action planning and ongoing process improvements."

This year's results show that the civilian defense workforce remains dissatisfied with senior leadership and managers. More than 42 percent of respondents said managers do not communicate goals and priorities effectively, and barely more than half said they respect senior leadership. Both rates declined by more than two percentage points compared with 2013.

The Office of Personnel Management conducts the Federal Employee Viewpoints Survey each year.

Agencies have received their results, and the OPM plans to release overall results before year's end. No federal agency has publicized its survey results yet, but some, including the Defense Department, have posted them online.

At Defense, according to the survey, problems also have persisted in the areas of training, career advancement, accountability and openness to new ideas.

Fifty-two percent of employees indicated that they are not satisfied with job training, and 69 percent said they are not content with career-advancement opportunities.

Federal training budgets have shrunk in recent years because of spending cuts, and some Democrats have already used the survey results to argue that Congress needs to be more generous with funding.

"The level of dissatisfaction is not surprising in light of furloughs, government shutdown, pay freezes and [the] requirement to do more with less resources at a time when the demand for U.S. military involvement in world events is at an all-time post-9/11 high," said Michael Amato, a spokesman for Rep. Adam Smith, Wash., the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, Okla., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that President Barack Obama needs to prioritize defense funding.

"It's no surprise that the morale of DOD employees has suffered under this president's misguided spending priorities," he said.

Only 52 percent of respondents said senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, representing a drop of about four percentage points compared with last year. Additionally, 63 percent of employees indicated they don't believe innovation is rewarded, and 55 percent said they don't feel empowered to affect work processes.

Among the lowest scores, only 18 percent of employees said pay raises are based on job performance, and just 27 percent said they believe management takes steps to deal with poor work.

On a positive note, the vast majority of employees expressed satisfaction with work-life programs.

Nearly 90 percent said they are pleased with "alternative work schedules," and 71 percent gave positive reviews to telework.

Hinkle-Bowles said the overall survey results show that employees "remain very positive about their work, jobs and mission, and appreciate the work/life programs."

But Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., who chairs the House panel, called for a review of the Defense Department's workforce culture and incentives for good performance. He added that Congress needs to "swiftly end sequestration," saying DOD employees are losing confidence in the importance of their work because of the government-wide spending cuts that took effect last year.

"Many are uncertain about their jobs," McKeon said. "That's no way to treat people who work to help ensure our collective safety and security."

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents defense civilians, shared similar sentiments.

"There's nothing for employees to look forward to," said Don Hale, chairman of the AFGE defense conference. "It's like everything's dead-ended. People are scared. They're out there not knowing what tomorrow will bring."