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Survey Says?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carmen Ashley
January 7, 2019

As I write this column, the federal workforce is entering 2019 with a partial government shutdown and a pay freeze. This same workforce was subjected to two very short shutdowns in January and February of 2018. One cannot help but wonder how these events might affect federal employee morale or the concept of public service motivation. I will be using the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) to determine if its results might offer any insights into this query.

James Perry and Lois Wise, in a 1990 Public Administration Review article titled “The Motivational Bases of Public Service,” define public service motivation (PSM) as, “an individual’s predisposition to respond to motives primarily grounded or uniquely in public institutions.” We see PSM played out over and over again in non-profit organizations and various levels of government.

At the federal level, the current administration seems to acknowledge this concept as well. A 2018 report released by the White House notes that, “The Federal workforce also contains untold numbers of selfless civil servants who perform their jobs in a manner that honors and uplifts their fellow citizens. They are part of the fabric that makes this Nation great.” Do current federal employees feel the same? Let’s take a look at some of the key findings of the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and see what we can find out.

The 2018 survey was administered in late spring of 2017 and had a response rate of 40.6 percent, with approximately 600,000 federal employees completing the survey. This is down from the 46 percent response rate for the 2017 survey. Could that be an indication of employee disdain or apathy? Perhaps, but there is no way to determine this with certainty from this survey alone. But what else do the survey results tell us?

On the positive side, the top three survey items respondents most agreed with were (items are presented as they were in the survey):

  • When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get the job done (96 percent).
  • I am constantly looking for ways to do my job better (91 percent).
  • The work I do is important (90 percent).

One could reasonably assume that many federal employees are dedicated to the work that they do both personally and professionally, based upon these survey results. It also seems that the two brief government shutdowns at the beginning of 2018 did not affect their public service motivation – at least in the most basic sense.


Image credit: Woodand Times

On the negative side, the top three survey items respondents least agreed with were (again, items are presented as they were in the survey):

  • Pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs (26 percent).
  • In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve (32 percent).
  • Promotions in my work unit are based on merit (37 percent).

The same federal employees who seem to be very passionate about their work have also noted that performance and performance-based rewards are lacking in the government workforce. It is also worth pointing out that the most agreed-upon survey items were individual-based, while the least agreed-upon survey items were externally-based (i.e., managerial).

Finally, the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey looked at employee engagement, which is defined by the Office of Personnel and Management as, “An employee’s sense of purpose that is evident in their display of dedication, persistence and effort in their work or overall attachment to their organization and its mission”. The FEVS uses an Employee Engagement Index that includes several items such as: perception of leaders; relationships with supervisors; and individual feelings of motivation and competency in the work environment. The Employee Engagement Index for the 2018 survey was 68 percent, up one percentage point from the 2017 survey results.

So, what do all of these results say about federal employees and public service motivation? Some might conclude that the current federal workforce has not experienced any “damage” related to public service motivation. Others might argue that the survey results cannot offer a reasonable gauge for public service motivation among federal employees, especially given the lower response rate and the wide variety of federal employees (military vs. civilian, small federal agency vs. large federal agency, supervisors vs. non-supervisors, etc.) who completed the survey. Also, this was a cursory and non-scientific inquiry.

Now is a good time to start this conversation. The next Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey will be administered in late spring of 2019. Currently, no one knows how long this current government shutdown will continue. Will its effects be evident in the 2019 survey results, or will those in the federal workforce continue their dedication to public service despite all of the external challenges they face?

Perhaps we will revisit this later in the year after the 2019 results are released.


Author: Carmen Ashley is a doctoral student at Valdosta State University and is also a federal employee who appreciates those who have a commitment to any kind of public service. Her email is [email protected], and her Twitter handle is @CarmenLAshley.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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