As Jack Lew prepares to take over the leadership of the Office of Management and Budget, most eyes in Washington and around the country will be on his strategy to manage the fiscal situation. But equally important will be how the agency functions internally. Employee morale in OMB fell significantly over the past two years, according to a recent survey, which means Lew will need to figure out quickly why that occurred and take the necessary steps to improve employee satisfaction. This is particularly important right now because the fiscal situation means there simply isn’t room for an OMB that is not firing on all cylinders.
OMB is a small agency, with around 500 of the 1.9 million or so federal workers, but it is a crucially important organization. Its responsibilities include improving government management across the board—and it needs to be seen as an exemplar if it is to be credible in that role. It is responsible for working with agencies to ensure they accomplish the Obama administration’s High Priority Performance Goals—another priority for Lew as the Center for American Progress pointed out in a recent column. OMB staff can wield enormous power, and they typically enjoy high-quality work. Historically, it has been easy for the organization to recruit excellent staff.
Alas, the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey’s results show improvements across almost all of government, but not among OMB staff. The agency dropped to No. 25 in 2010 from its No. 3 spot in 2008, according to the rankings of small agencies prepared by the Partnership for Public Service. The new director clearly needs to figure out why the drop in OMB morale occurred and take the necessary steps to get staff fully behind OMB’s government mission.
OMB leadership started responding to the survey results before the departure of outgoing OMB director Peter Orszag, but the new director must make sure that the organization is clear about its mission and that the leaders and staff work together. That kind of concentrated focus will be crucial if Lew and OMB are to succeed in the coming years.
Let’s get down to details. The Office of Personnel Management has conducted the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey every two years since 2002. Over 260,000 federal workers respond to it. OMB and OPM leaders decided last year that the survey should be conducted annually, which is excellent news: Understanding how employees are feeling and taking actions to boost morale can help improve organizational performance and consequently the quality of government policies and services.
There is much to celebrate in this year’s survey. Governmentwide, overall satisfaction hit 62.4 percent from 57.5 percent in 2008. Some departments showed very significant improvement. I noted in a column last week, for example, that the Department of Transportation and the Federal Labor Relations Authority head the tables for the most improved agencies.
But OMB’s survey results raise questions. The office was among the best in government two years ago. Now it has fallen down the ladder. Specifically:
- Thirty-seven percent of OMB employees say they are satisfied with the information they receive on what’s going on in the organization—down from 61 percent.
- Forty-three percent say that OMB leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment—down from 56 percent.
- Seventy percent feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things and 90 percent like the kind of work they do. These last two results are marginally down but remain higher than the government-wide average.
The new director should make it a priority to understand why the OMB survey results declined, building on the follow-up inquiry initiated by his predecessor. There are unlikely to be easy answers. It could be that the change of administration has caused greater upheaval in OMB than in other agencies, but unfortunately no data from 2000 exist to see if there was a similar effect during the last change of administration. It could be the overlay of demand on OMB staff, with the unprecedented fiscal crisis and the push for several major new pieces of legislation. Or perhaps OMB needs to work on communicating its new priorities internally. Staff may feel they aren’t being given enough responsibility, or maybe problems are more significant in some parts of the organization and attention needs to be focused there.
Analyzing the results and listening to staff and managers will allow OMB to fully understand what is driving the drop in its survey results. It then needs to take action to address these causes. Only one in three OMB staff believe the Viewpoint Survey’s results will be used to make the agency a better place to work. The new OMB director must prove the skeptics wrong by taking urgent action to address the worrying results of the survey.
Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at American Progress. His work focuses on government efficiency, regulatory reform, and economic issues at the Center’s Doing What Works project. Go to the Doing What Works webpage at the Center’s website to learn more about the project.