Federal workers do a lot of things. They protect our National resources – the environment, mineral resources, parks, forests and wildlife reserves, archaeological sites, and government buildings. They explore space, the oceans, remote lands, and the human genome. They monitor our commerce, protect our food, build roads, maintain coastlines, and provide aid during national disasters. They take care of the poor, the disabled, the aged and our veterans. They deliver mail, regulate the public airways, collect taxes, and listen in our private communications. They represent us to other countries. They investigate crimes and enforce laws, both good and bad. They create and maintain a huge arsenal of weapons of individual and mass destruction. They fight wars. And, they cater to the whims of thousands of elected and appointed politicians, not to mention the population of the United States.
There are 4.2 million federal employees, civilian and military. By and large, federal employees don’t just work for the money. The pay and benefits are reasonable and the job security is usually good. But, there’s more to it. Most individuals enter the federal workforce because they want to be of service to their countrymen. Still, as with any job, there are aspects of federal jobs that can be demoralizing, debilitating, and downright dangerous. It is said that a satisfied and engaged workforce is a productive workforce. To that end, the federal Office of Personal Management conducts the Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) annually to see how morale is in the federal workforce. There are over 70 questions on the survey, gauging everything from job activities and engagement, co-workers, leadership and supervision, benefits, and of course, morale. The survey has been conducted biannually from 2002 to 2010 and annually thereafter. The next EVS will be conducted from April to June 2016.
So, here’s how federal employees have responded to Question 69 of the EVS – “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?” – from 2002 to 2015.
On the EVS, respondents could select: Strongly Agree; Agree; Neither Agree nor Disagree; Disagree; or Strongly Disagree to the question. Composites of the percentages of responses were calculated by multiplying the percentages according to the scheme Strongly Agree = 5; Agree = 4; Neither Agree nor Disagree = 3; Disagree = 2; and Strongly Disagree = 1. On the plot, the vertical axis represents this composite satisfaction, ranging from 3.5 to 4.0, essentially from neutral to Agree.
From 2002 to 2008, the Bush years when Republicans controlled Congress, job satisfaction was fairly constant. During that period, the Iraq war began, Hurricane Katrina occurred, and some government jobs were contracted to the private sector (A76 competitions). Public trust in government fell steadily based on polls conducted by Pew Research.
Satisfaction rose significantly during 2008-2010 as Democrats took control of the government. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the Stimulus), the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and the Telework Act were all signed into law, energizing federal employees. Public trust in government increased slightly.
But satisfaction fell precipitously during 2011-2014 when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. They initiated a three-year pay freeze on federal workers culminating in a shutdown of the government from October 1 through 16, 2013.
Satisfaction increased in 2015 but not even to pre-2008 levels. Pay raises were held to 1%, which was considered by many to be better than nothing.
Job satisfaction for private sector employees usually depends mostly on pay, working conditions (including the behavior of the boss), and job security. Only occasionally might upper management initiate some draconian policy or close a facility. Within the Executive Branch of the federal government, however, pay, working conditions, and job security follow strict rules so employees are treated fairly. What’s different is that there is a 535-member Board of Directors (i.e., Congress), that can and does meddle in even the most mundane of government functions. Apart from the more overt political gaming, like freezing pay and shutting down the government, a civil servant’s job may be made unpleasant because a politician wants a favor for himself or a constituent. It’s like having hundreds of bosses who you have to try to please.
In 2016, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and Congress, adding greatly to the theatrics of the Presidential campaign. It remains to be seen whether Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic nomination and then the general election or whether the country will devolve into increased polarization and dysfunction caused by apathy, selfishness, ignorance, bias, fear, hate, and violence. Hopefully we’ll all be more satisfied after January 2017.