A Look Across the Federal Government
The 2021 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® employee engagement and satisfaction score is 64.5 out of 100, representing a 4.5-point decrease from 2020 in how our nation’s civil servants view their agencies and jobs.
This significant downturn in job and organizational engagement and satisfaction came as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt the federal workforce and the larger labor market during the final months of 2021 when employees were surveyed.
During this timeframe, tens of thousands of civil servants—and their private sector peers—faced uncertainty about returning to the office after more than a year and a half working remotely part or full-time, while a sizable portion of the federal workforce remained on the frontlines performing critical public services as the health crisis persisted. The federal employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate went into effect on Nov. 22, in the middle of the survey period.
The sizable drop in employee engagement and satisfaction came during President Joe Biden’s first year in office. The Senate had confirmed only 55% of the administration’s political appointee nominations by the end of 2021. This is lower than the first-year confirmation rate for Presidents Donald Trump (57%), Barack Obama (69%) and George W. Bush (75%). During this dynamic period, the leadership vacancy rates presented a major challenge for the administration, which has described federal employees as the “backbone of our government” and committed in the President’s Management Agenda to “make every federal job a good job, where all employees are engaged, supported, heard and empowered.”
Most of the agency engagement and satisfaction scores decreased or held steady in 2021, with just 25 of 71, or 35%, of the government’s large, midsize and small agencies showing improvements. Those registering higher scores present a model and roadmap for federal leaders of what is working and how to create a rewarding and safe employee experience during this volatile time.
Looking closely at specific elements of the employee experience in 2021 presents a workforce at a critical and stressful turning point. Though the COVID-19 work-related scores trended slightly down in 2021, federal employees were still largely positive regarding how agency leaders and supervisors handled concerns about their well-being, posting a score of 85.2 out of 100 in a category of COVID-19 related questions on flexible work schedules, expanded leave policies, vaccine protocols and a safe workplace.
How federal employees assessed the ongoing and future post-pandemic “return to office” landscape was less positive. A separate COVID-19 category dealing with the possible long-term return to the office stood at just 63.0. This lower score reflected concerns about effective communication and sufficient updates by senior leaders regarding plans to return to the physical workplace, what to expect if employees return and whether employee safety would be a top priority.
This uncertainty occurred as fewer employees were teleworking every day in November 2021 (36.2%) when the survey was being taken, compared to 47.3% who teleworked full-time in September and October of 2020, and 59% who teleworked full-time earlier in 2020 just after the pandemic began.
In addition to the COVID-19 related issues, the Best Places to Work analysis, based largely on information from the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, suggests other concerns also may have contributed to the lower government-wide employee engagement and satisfaction score in 2021, many of which intersect with stresses that emerged during or were exacerbated by the pandemic.
These concerns include evidence of dissatisfaction with pay after federal employees received a salary raise of only 1% in 2021, a 1.6 point drop from 2020. At the same time, consumer prices went up by 7% from December 2020 to December 2021. (See Bureau of Labor Statistics’ analysis for more information). Notably, the 2022 pay raise for federal employees is 2.7%, and a proposed pay raise of 4.6% in 2023 would be the highest in two decades. Pay dissatisfaction was joined by continued concern about work-life balance and overall workload increases as telework opportunities evolved.
The Diversity of the Employee Experience
Based on our analysis of the Best Places to Work data, those in the age range of 30 to 39 had the lowest employee engagement and satisfaction score of any age group in 2021. In addition, this age group scored the lowest in all categories save one (pay satisfaction), suggesting a moment of strain among this cohort at a stage when many are potential emerging leaders.
Employees aged 60 and over registered the highest satisfaction of any age range, also scoring highest in most workplace categories. The same dynamic was true in 2020, but the index score gap between these two groups is much larger this year, highlighting that the 30 to 39 population deserves close attention by leaders (a difference of 5.1 in 2020 vs. 12.3 in 2021). On a positive note, as federal agencies place greater emphasis on recruiting a younger generation of employees, workers under the age of 30 scored very high across most categories except for pay satisfaction, where they posted the lowest result.
Comparable trends are reflected when examining career cohorts: Senior leaders recorded a high engagement and satisfaction score, followed by employees with less than one year of experience.
Among demographic groups, the data shows the lowest employee engagement and satisfaction scores for those identifying as LGBT, people with disabilities, Native Americans and Alaskans, and those who identified with two or more races. The 2022 FEVS will include additional diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion measures for agency assessment, with the President’s Management Agenda elevating these as a future priority-level success metric for agencies.
The 2021 government-wide drop in employee engagement and satisfaction occurred during a particularly challenging and uncertain time for both the federal workforce and nation overall that largely persists today, with specific groups withstanding high levels of stress.
These trends, paired with low and decreasing faith that the survey results will result in meaningful change, represent a clear signal for the Biden administration and agency leaders to be more attuned to employee concerns, to learn lessons from both the innovations and stresses of 2021, and to address the issues and confusion that are adversely affecting the workforce in the “return to office” environment.
This will require listening and responding to the personal and workplace needs of employees as well as adjusting to changing circumstances and building on opportunities emerging from the pandemic to ensure that the important work of the government is carried out.
Having a highly motivated and engaged workforce, paired with responsible and responsive leaders, is critical for a well-functioning government that can successfully serve the public.
A Call for Leadership
Besides the government-wide engagement and satisfaction score and COVID-19-focused questions, the 2021 Best Places to Work results provide insights into a wide range of aspects of the federal employee experience, analyzed in further detail here. Critical among these are the views of agency leaders. While most employees felt their agency leaders and supervisors supported their health and safety during the pandemic, overall perceptions of leaders were less positive, with notable variability across levels of leadership.
The 2021 government-wide score for the effective leadership workplace category—assessing supervisors, managers and senior leaders together—stood at 68.0 out of 100. In contrast, supervisors drew a higher rating of 79.8, but senior leaders came in considerably lower at 56.1. Notably, senior leadership scores at large agencies went down, while those at midsize and small agencies increased.
In what should be a flashing alarm for federal leaders, agencies scored only 40.1 on the question that asked whether “the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work,” a 2.8 point drop from 2020 and the lowest scoring question on the survey overall. Even top performing federal agencies like NASA had a score of only 66.6—also down 1.6 points—on this survey question, indicating lower employee confidence in the willingness of agency leaders to take responsive actions when employees provide their feedback.