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Federal worker morale ticks up overall but drops at State, FBI

WASHINGTON — Many federal workers are feeling better about their jobs this year, but employees at the State Department, the FBI and elsewhere in the intelligence community report lower morale than they did before the 2016 election, according to a newly released survey of government employees.

The “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” report, released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, revealed that while about three-quarters of federal agencies saw increased employee engagement this year compared to 2016, the Justice Department and the FBI specifically — which have been singled out for criticism by President Donald Trump amid the Russia investigation — have experienced noteworthy drops since last year.

Image: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump speaks to the media
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Nov. 20, 2017 in Washington. Kevin Dietsch / Pool via Getty Images file

The State Department, which has been buffeted by understaffing and a strained relationship between Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson, has seen the largest single-year falloff in employee satisfaction of any large agency. That drop was largely driven by a drop in how staff members view their senior leaders compared to the previous year, the study found. (The data for the survey was gathered over the summer, before recent published reports that Trump may be maneuvering to replace Tillerson with CIA director Mike Pompeo.)

Another agency that recorded a noteworthy decrease in morale is the Environmental Protection Agency, which has seen rollbacks of Obama-era climate protections as well as proposed deep budget cuts by the Trump administration.

The annual survey measures 10 different categories of employee engagement, including effective leadership, strategic management, teamwork, work-life balance and pay.

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Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, says that year-to-year changes in each agency’s ratings are tied to how employees view their leaders, from their immediate supervisors to the top echelons of government.

“Inevitably, when an agency goes up or down, it’s always about the leadership of the organization,” Stier says.

While morale has eroded at some of the government organizations most explicitly at odds with the Trump administration, employee engagement is up overall throughout the federal workforce, the study found.

Government-wide, employees give an overall satisfaction score of 61.5 out of 100, about two points higher than in 2016.

That includes significant year-over-year increases at the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation and the Pentagon.

One of the largest jumps within those agencies came among employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is charged with carrying out many of Trump’s stringent immigration policies. The survey found employee satisfaction jumping by nearly 12 out of 100 points since last year.

At agencies like ICE where morale has risen significantly in the last year, Stier says, “You’ve got folks who feel as if they’re able to do their work more effectively. To a certain extent, they’re unleashed.”

What’s the worst place to work in the federal government? The study’s lowest score came from the scandal-plagued United States Secret Service. The organization’s overall employee engagement score clocked in at just 33 out of 100, virtually unchanged from last year.