Barack Obama must begin rebuilding federal agencies fast—or risk seeing his entire agenda undermined.
By John D. Donahue and Max Stier
Every two years the federal government conducts a "Human Capital Survey" of its own employees. Nearly a quarter of a million civil servants participate, providing anonymous, detailed, and often quite revealing answers to questions about their own agencies: What’s the level of morale and teamwork? Do their skills match their missions? Do they have the resources to get the job done? How able and trustworthy are their leaders? Are high-performing employees promoted, and the lazy and incompetent shown the door?
When the answers to these questions are processed and released by the Office of Personnel Management they fuel some watercooler banter, and that’s usually about it. Administration officials mostly ignore the results. Congress, which mandated the survey, pays little attention; the press, virtually none. The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service (headed by one of the authors of this article) uses the data, with some statistical refinements, to prepare a more detailed and accessible set of agency rankings dubbed "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government." But even this version is mostly inside baseball, discussed largely by civil servants themselves. To the average American, and even to most public policy mavens, what bureaucrats think about their bureaucracies is the very definition of dull.
Yet there’s a reason why top private-sector companies conduct similar surveys of their employees: such data can provide precious insight into an organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and an early-warning sensor for trouble ahead.