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Drop in Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey responses a lesson for HR

The U.S. government's annual engagement survey of 1.5 million employees reported an increase in the overall engagement measure, but a sharp decline in survey participation. Here's why HR pros should care.

The federal government saw a big drop in employee responses to its annual employee engagement survey, in just released data. Of the approximately 1.5 million employees asked to participate in the online engagement survey, only 41% did so -- a 5% decrease from last year.

Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey 2018 numbers ranged by department, with Department of Justice employees among the smallest group to weigh in and NASA employees among the highest.

HR pros should take note, as private sector firms are unlikely to publicly release employee engagement survey results. The government's publication offers a rare view -- including survey questions and five-year trends -- into the engagement survey practices and benchmarking of a very large organization.

Until this year, the federal employee response rate has ranged from 46% to 50% since 2014. The government, in releasing the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey 2018 report, did not explain why participation declined. But outside experts familiar with the federal process say employees are less likely to participate if they believe nothing will come of it or if they don't feel connected to the department's mission -- a message that could be useful to HR professionals regardless of their industry.  

Response decline a sign of trouble?

The sharp participation decline in this year's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, an online form of approximately 100 questions, may be a sign of trouble, said Jeffrey Neal, a former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security.

When employees lose confidence in an agency's willingness to act in response to the survey data, they stop participating in the survey.
Jeffrey Nealformer chief human capital officer, Department of Homeland Security

"It can tell you that people don't think anything is going to happen as a result of the survey," said Neal, who is now senior vice president at consulting and technology services provider ICF International Inc. "When employees lose confidence in an agency's willingness to act in response to the survey data, they stop participating in the survey."

But Neal said he couldn't rule out other reasons for the decline, such as the possibility of mistakes in how the survey was delivered to employees this year. For example, many employees, such as Transportation Security Administration workers, may not have access to a computer at work, he noted.

This year's decline in the response rate mars an otherwise positive story for the government. Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey engagement scores are trending up, something that began in the final years of President Barack Obama's administration.

The Obama administration made engagement results part of the performance reviews of senior executives, in an effort to increase leadership accountability. That has continued with the Trump administration. The overall federal engagement score, 63 in 2014, is now at 68 in the latest report.

Neal said the uptick in engagement scores may suggest that agencies have figured out that engagement "is an important thing for them to work on."

NASA leads as best place to work

The government-wide results may not be as revealing as the individual agency findings. Agencies operate independently, with their own CEO-type administrators, rules, culture and mission. Engagement scores can vary widely by agency.

For instance, only 28% of Department of Justice employees -- an agency that has been under near-constant criticism from President Donald Trump over the special counsel probe -- filled out the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. In 2017, 35% of its employees responded. That agency has seen leadership changes, including the recent resignation of now former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

FEVS 2018 generational demographic
The chart details who responded to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey by generation and how it compares to the age makeup of the workforce's 1.5 million employees.

But at NASA, which just succeeded in landing a probe on Mars, the response rate was 68%, just slightly below what it reported in 2017.

Indeed, agency scores are highly affected by changes in their agency, said Mallory Bulman, the vice president of research and evaluation of Partnership for Public Service. The more meaningful employee engagement data is in the agency-by-agency responses, she said. 

"Engagement is driven primarily by two things. One being leadership, and that's both political as well as career leadership within the agency," Bulman said. "The second being what we call skills mission-match, which means the ability of an individual to feel that their skills are being used to contribute to the mission of their agency."

Leadership changes and vacancies, as well as well mission changes at agencies, will lead to "discrepancies across the government in how individuals are reporting engagement."

One question to watch

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works with government officials to improve workforce management, will take the federal engagement data and use it to build its annual rankings of Best Places to Work in the federal government. Among the 18 largest federal agencies, NASA now tops the best list. An updated list reflecting the government's latest engagement survey data will be released Dec. 12.  

Bulman said an employee engagement survey question that they watch closely is one that asks whether employees believe the results of the survey will be used to "make this a better place work." The response to that question has been "unbelievably lower over time," Bulman said. Only four out of 10 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey respondents indicated that they believe the results will be used to improve their agency.

"If you feel that your leaders are going to use a survey, you're going to take the time to fill it out," Bulman said.

The survey, overall, indicated that federal workers are committed to their jobs. For instance, 96% said they are "willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done," and 90% agreed with the statement that "the work I do is important." The lowest levels of agreement by employees were around pay and promotions. For instance, only 26% agree that "pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs."

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