Yellen Has the Best People, but Kerry’s Are the Most Loyal
Policy + Politics

Yellen Has the Best People, but Kerry’s Are the Most Loyal

JONATHAN ERNST

A survey of thousands of management executives in the federal government found that the employees of the Federal Reserve Board are the most highly regarded in terms of their skill at doing their jobs. But it’s the Department of State’s political affairs division that reports having the easiest time attracting qualified personnel as well as the easiest time retaining them.

The results weren’t so pretty for the General Services Administration, which received the lowest score when respondents were asked to assess the skill of its workforce. The news was also bad for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Benefits Administration, which came in dead last in its ability to recruit the best employees, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, where managers said they can’t hold on to good workers.

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The data comes from a survey of 3,551 federal management-level employees, both career civil servants and political appointees. Released on Thursday, the survey was conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Professor David E. Lewis, the lead researcher on the study, said the results should be a wake-up call for the executive branch of the federal government. “Look, the survey results show that some agency workforces are very skilled and others are really struggling. The federal government needs to spend some time looking at why some federal agencies are doing well and some are doing poorly, and share best practices.”

At the moment, he said “[T]hey underinvest in this kind of activity. There is no modern human resource management like you see in the best private sector firms.”

The assessment of the skill of various federal agencies’ workforces was done by asking federal managers to assess the skill levels of the people from other agencies with whom they interact. A manager did not assess the skill level of his or her own personnel. Researchers took a number of precautions to achieve a fair result, including taking baseline rankings from all respondents regarding the employees at the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, agencies that almost all federal executives have interactions with.

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The Federal Reserve was, far and away, the most respected agency among federal managers when it came to workforce skill. On a five-point scale from “not at all skilled” to “very skilled” the Fed was the sole government agency to average above 4, with a 4.06 score.

Close behind were the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers (3.98), the National Science Foundation (3.96), the National Institutes of Health (3.94) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (3.93).

The GSA, which manages federal facilities and provides basic communications technology and office space to federal agencies, came in last on the skills measure, with a 3.36 ranking. Others bringing up the rear included the Office of Personnel Management (3.38), the Department of Veterans Affairs (3.41), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (3.42), and the United States Postal Service (3.43).

While the assessments of workforce skill were based on government executives’ interactions with agencies other than their own, two others focused on managers’ hiring and retaining top employees within their own departments. They were asked to react to a statement about their agencies’ recruiting and retaining employees on a 0 to 4 scale, with 0 meaning “strongly disagree” and 4 meaning “strongly agree.”

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Asked to react to the statement “[My agency] is unable to recruit the best employees,” the VA’s Veteran Benefits Administration was far and away the worst, with a score of 3.3. Not far behind was its parent agency, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, at 2.7. Given the recent headlines about extraordinary wait times at VA facilities, which appear to have led to the deaths of veterans awaiting healthcare, this probably shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Others struggling to hire qualified applicants included the Bureau of Land Management (2.7), the National Archives and Records Administration (2.6) and the Department of the Army (2.5). Some other agencies received similar rankings, but the study’s margin of error meant that the cumulative rating might have been in the “neither agree nor disagree” category.

Other agencies had little problem attracting qualified employees, according to managers. The State Department’s political affairs division topped the list with a 0.9 rating, followed by the Federal Trade Commission (1.0), the Office of Management and Budget (1.2), the Securities and Exchange Commission (1.3), and the Department of Justice (1.6). Again, a number of other agencies were in the same range, but could not be statistically differentiated from a “neither agree nor disagree” answer.

Managers at the State Department’s political affairs division don’t only have an easier time than most recruiting candidates, they find it easier to keep them as well. Asked to react to the statement “[My agency] is able to retain the best employees” on the same scale used in the previous question, they posted the highest level of agreement at 2.9.

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Others near the top included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2.8), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2.8), the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (2.7), the National Transportation and Safety Board (2.7), and the Fed (2.5.)

The presence of the NTSB on the list at such a high level is particularly interesting, because it’s managers also reported substantial agreement (2.5) with the previous statement about the difficulty of recruiting top candidates.

Down at the bottom in the ranks of agencies able to retain their best employees was the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (1.3.) Others in the basement included the National Archives and Records Administration (1.4), the Veterans Health Administration (1.5), the Department of the Army (1.5), and the beleaguered Department of veterans Affairs (1.6.)

To Vanderbilt’s Lewis, who has spent years studying the federal bureaucracy, the best course of action is obvious: “We need to free up managers to reward merit. We need to make it possible to hire the best people, reward and promote the best people, and then retain the best people.”

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