Friday, December 27, 2013

The Morale of Federal Employees

 A blog about the causes for low morale among Federal employees just came out from NPR.  I disagree strongly with the final take-away message of this blog regarding Federal employees:  ' "They're there for the salaries and benefits," he says. "They're not there because the jobs make them happy." '  I can't speak for all Federal agencies, but that statement is simply wrong about the majority of the NOAA employees with whom I worked.  I wrote my own web essay about the rewards for idealism in the NWS, and I believe it comes much closer to reality in ascribing causes for low morale in the NWS.

Management of Federal agencies is far from uniformly bad, but I believe most Federal employees who actually care about their work (certainly not all employees, but the majority in my experience) find their greatest frustration in the words and deeds of their own management.  NOAA managers have been singularly ineffective in acting on behalf of their agency's needs, have failed to enhance the ability of their employees to be effective at their jobs, and have created an atmosphere of fear in the organization whereby most employees with complaints and criticisms are cowed into silence by the threat of retribution.  The working employees, in their wish to serve the needs of the agency's customers, are being hampered constantly by their managers.

For an outsider, like the author of this NPR article, to come to such outrageous conclusions is seriously inaccurate, and insulting to thousands of Federal employees passionately dedicated to their jobs.  National Public Radio should be ashamed to have 'published' this piece.  It's extremely shoddy journalism and provides support to the canard that characterizes Federal employees as overpaid, underachieving parasites on society, enriching themselves while offering little or nothing of value in return.  Can such Federal employees be found?  Yes, of course - most of them in the ranks of agency management, with a small minority amongst the 'worker bees' (the employees who actually do the productive work of their agencies).  Likely there's variance in this respect within the broad spectrum of Federal agencies.

During my career, I had an opportunity to work part-time within a group of folks (in a Federal agency I won't name) whose job it was to provide a service.  Among the employees with whom I worked, there was a widespread attitude of contempt for the customers their group was charged with serving.  I don't know from whence this attitude came, but it pre-existed my arrival and I naively accepted it as the standard for how I approached the job.  Our team manager became aware of this and called a group meeting where he proceeded to tear us a new asshole - rather than treating our 'customers' with contempt for not knowing how to do the paperwork, we were to provide help as needed to expedite the needs of customers, without the contempt and without the hassle.  I was ashamed of what we'd been doing because I'd been on the receiving end of similar treatment during my professional career and understood only too well how that made me feel.  Why did I not recognize this and behave differently?  OK - lesson learned.  No doubt that such attitudes can be pervasive in many service organizations, Federal and non-Federal.  However, the employees can be made to understand that such non-performance is unacceptable, if that's the culture at the top.  When top management is more concerned about other issues than customer service, then it's understandable that the agency might well be peppered with bad attitudes.  No doubt a lot of the negative perceptions of Federal employees stems from interactions with Federal agencies where customers were treated badly.  It takes very few experiences of contempt from a service organization's employees to produce a deeply negative perception, no matter how well the majority of employees perform.

Federal employees are an easy target.  They're typically not allowed to respond to what politicians (and their own managers) say.  Politicians love to demonize them as a force resisting whatever policy changes the politicians want to make - changes often more political than helpful and uninformed in the extreme about what the agency actually does and why it operates in a certain way.  Sadly, this NPR article only reinforces the view that Federal employees deserve to be targeted.

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