March 30, 2003
Sounding An Alarm About Leadership
By Stephen Barr
Many federal employees don't think much of their leaders.
That's the overwhelming impression left by the government-wide survey of more than 100,000 civil servants that was released last week by the Office of Personnel Management.
Only 43 percent said they could agree with the statement, "I hold my organization's leaders in high regard."
Only 45 percent expressed confidence that their agencies do not tolerate "arbitrary action, personal favoritism and coercion for partisan political purposes."
Only 47 percent agreed that "my organization's leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity."
The survey did not define "leaders" or where they exist in the federal hierarchy. But it seems clear that these results can't be taken as a ringing endorsement of political appointees, senior executives and mid-level managers.
At the Justice Department, for example, only 38.7 percent said they hold the department's leadership in high regard. At the Interior Department, it was 39 percent; at the Environmental Protection Agency, 39.8 percent. At the three agencies, fewer than 10 percent of those respondents were willing to "strongly agree" that their bosses can be held in high regard.
Perhaps just as disturbing, the survey shows that a quarter of the respondents chose not to make a judgment about their agency's leadership. On key questions about respect and honesty, the percentage of employees who marked "neither agree nor disagree" was about the same as the percentage that filled in negative responses.
Supervisors -- the lower-level bosses whom most employees know the most about -- came off better in the survey. About half the employees in the survey said their supervisors and team leaders were "receptive to change," nearly 60 percent said their supervisors "encourage my development at work," and 57 percent said their supervisors "provide employees with the opportunities to demonstrate their leadership skills."
Still, many employees don't like what they see. Only 36 percent said their leaders "generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce."
OPM Director Kay Coles James said the survey provides a yardstick to help shape personnel policies.
"Perceptions matter," she said at a briefing last week on the survey results. "It matters, for example, whether people think they have good leaders. It matters whether they believe they are rewarded for their performance. It affects their level of motivation and how long they are likely to stay in their jobs.
"In these uncertain times when our nation is on a war footing, the expectations of the American people have for our public servants are necessarily very high. We saw it in the aftermath of September 11th, and we are seeing it again today. There is little room for error."
The survey, the largest ever undertaken, was administered by OPM from May to August of 2002. OPM pulled together a random sample of 208,424 executive branch employees, who were notified of their selection by e-mail. Of those contacted, 106,742 employees responded. Almost all of the survey respondents filled out the survey questionnaire on the Internet (only 490 paper questionnaires were used in the final tally).
In addition to showing that many employees are less than impressed with the quality of their leadership, the survey also discovered that 34.6 percent of the respondents are considering leaving their jobs. About half of those say they plan to retire in the next three years.
Administration officials had expected to cope with a retirement wave this decade but not the wider job churning. "We've had our attention drawn to a whole other set of people -- not an insignificant proportion -- who are saying, 'I'm getting out of Dodge,' " said Doris Hausser, a senior policy adviser to James. "And we've got to be concerned about that. . . . Retention is something we have to pay attention to."
Are these employees looking for higher-paying jobs or different jobs? Are they trying to escape a bad boss? Do they want to transfer between agencies or get out of the government? OPM officials said the data does not provide concrete answers.
But James said the restless third, combined with the low leadership scores, "sets off a red flag in my mind. . . . It makes me wonder."