One in ten US staff sought new job after shutdown, official survey finds

By on 12/11/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The survey found that 10% of respondents were looking for a new job either solely, or in part, because of the government shutdown. (Image courtesy: Shannon McGee/flickr).

Nearly half of US federal employees saw their work undermined or pay packets hit during the government shutdown last winter, according to the annual survey of American civil servants, with 10% of respondents saying that the experience had prompted them to look for a new job.

Some 46% of respondents reported that the shutdown – which ran from 22 December 2018 to 25 January 2019 – had a negative impact, with 22% saying they’d been hit ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ negatively. Among this 46%, the most commonly selected harms were delays to their work (67%) and reduced customer service (48%).

This year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey included a new section asking employees’ experience of the government shutdown. The 2019 survey was completed by 615,395 staff at 83 agencies, comprising 42.6% of the total federal government workforce, and its results were published last week by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The bigger picture

The survey found that the majority of US federal government workers are satisfied with their overall experience at work and motivated to do the best they can for their departments and agencies, but many feel that good performance is not recognised and are discontent with some aspects of their employment.

The overall staff engagement metric stands at 68%, unchanged from 2018, while job satisfaction also stood still at 69%. Some 90% said they feel their work is important, while 85% feel their work helps fulfil their employer’s goals. But many performance-related survey items received low scores. For example, only 39% of respondents feel promotions are based on merit; only 39% feel performance is recognised in a meaningful way; only 44% feel innovation and creativity are rewarded; and only 48% feel that awards depend on how well employees perform their jobs.

While the OPM acknowledged that these scores are low, it pointed out that three of them have increased by three percentage points, and one by four percentage points, since the 2017 survey.

Possible pay reform

The statements in the survey with which respondents least agreed were ‘pay rises depend on how well employees perform their jobs’ and ‘in my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve’, with only 28% and 34% of respondents agreeing with those statements respectively.

According to the Federal Times, the Trump administration has pointed to these numbers as evidence for why the federal pay system should be reformed. However, the proposals to freeze pay without offering concrete policy on how performance-based recognition will be administered have faced strong opposition from employee groups.

Pay and performance recognition aren’t the only areas with which government workers are discontent. Fewer than half of respondents are satisfied with the opportunity to get a better job in their organisation (41%); feel their work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills (44%); feel senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce (45%); or are satisfied with the policies and practices of their senior leaders (47%).

Remote working

Other negatives highlighted by the survey results include remote working. While 43% of employees use ‘telework’ options to some degree, with 29% using them regularly, only 60% of participants are satisfied with the telework programme offered by their agency.

Telework has been a sensitive topic at some federal agencies. While OPM has encouraged agencies to consider telework as part of a work-life balance programme, the Federal Times reports that individual agencies have moved to curtail telework and renegotiate contracts in order to give leadership full authority over telework offerings.   

‘Things we need to address’

Dale Cabaniss, recently-appointed director of the OPM, admits that some of the 2019 results raise concerns. “Respondents continue a five-year trend of reporting concerns about the manner in which poor performance is addressed and, in particular, the perceived lack of proper application of merit principles to promotion and reward decisions,” she wrote in her introduction to the report. “The evidence is pretty clear that there are some things we need to address.”

She said she believes that the agencies that are most successful are those that use data as starting points for analysis and action. “It’s not about seeing percentages move but creating a more conducive environment for employment. I will look into these issues with the [survey] results as data-based evidence prompting future action.”  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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