US federal employees were resilient during COVID-19 but concerns raised about service delivery

By on 27/04/2021
Delivering services: a significant minority of federal employees raised concerns about their ability to deliver services to the public during the pandemic. Credit: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash

While US federal government employees mostly remained resilient and engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were “meaningful declines” in their assessment of service delivery, according to an annual staff survey.

“Despite the unprecedented workplace challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, federal workers adapted quickly to their new realities, continuing to work on behalf of the American people, taking on additional and sometimes new work to ensure critical services have been available to the public,” said Kathleen McGettigan, acting director of OPM.

The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, published on Monday by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), is a barometer of public servants’ satisfaction with a variety of aspect of their professional lives including leadership, working environment, recognition and opportunities for growth.

This edition slimmed down standard questions so that a new section, which focused on how the pandemic has affected federal employees, could be added.

Responses and engagement were largely positive, but a significant minority of respondents raised concerns about how their own health was protected during the pandemic, as well as their ability to deliver services to the public.

Pandemic working patterns

The past year saw profound shifts in the working practices and workload of US federal workers. Some 59% of respondents said they teleworked every day, compared with just 3% before the pandemic. Furthermore, nearly half (48%) of respondents said they had a greatly or somewhat increased workload because of the pandemic.

As part of its COVID-19 questioning, the survey asked about employee support, which it defined as “the organizational climate established by leadership to support workforce health and safety.”

Overall, employees “responded positively” about the help given by both supervisors and senior leaders, the report noted. “Nearly all item results had a percent positive score of 80 or more,” it said.

Indeed, the government as a whole scored highly on its annual “engagement index” which uses responses to the survey to create an overall measure to “assess the critical conditions conducive for employee engagement”. This year’s overall score on the index was 72%, up four percentage points compared with 2019.

Areas for improvement

But responses to questions about federal employees’ experience of the pandemic reveal there is “potential for improvements governmentwide in the areas of physical health and safety at the worksite and communication related to those topics.”

For example, nearly a fifth (19%) of respondents said that “timely communication about possible COVID-19 illness at agency worksite” was needed but not available to them.

Likewise, 17% of those surveyed said “expanded physical health resources at [their] agency worksite” were needed but not available, and 13% said the same about training for health and safety protocols.

Similarly, some employees found support for their work lacking: 16% of respondents said they needed, but could not access, reallocated resources (such as staffing and budget) to respond to changes at work driven by the pandemic.

The survey also asked a series of questions about employee perceptions of their work unit’s effectiveness, including its ability to meet customer needs and collaborate successfully. Drawing on previous surveys, the researchers compared responses from before and during the pandemic.

While most respondents gave a positive appraisal of their unit’s performance on each of these metrics during the pandemic, there were “meaningful declines” year-on-year for certain factors. For example, where 94% of respondents were positive about their unit meeting customer needs prior to COVID-19, this dropped to 86% during the crisis.

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