Nearly Half of Federal Execs With Workforce Issues Point to 'Political Pressure' as a Cause

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Less than half of top feds say they have enough employees to do a "quality job."

More than four-in-10 executives in the federal government who said their workforces were inadequate to deliver on agency missions identified “political pressure” as a reason for that deficiency, according to a new survey. 

Among all the top officials—both career and non-career—who responded to the Partnership for Public Service and Princeton University survey, 60% said their workforces maintained shortcomings that created a “significant obstacle” in conducting their work. They were most likely to list the lengthy federal hiring process as an encumbrance, followed by a lack of career growth opportunities for staff and an inability to compete with salaries from other employers. 

The 44% of executives who pointed to political pressure to stymie workforce growth as having a negative impact on workforce capacity marked a drop off from the last time the Partnership and Princeton conducted the survey in 2014. That year, following the intense budgetary pressures created by sequestration, 56% of executives attributed workforce shortcomings to political pressures to slow the growth of staff. Sixty percent cited a lack of resources as problematic that year, compared to 54% this year. 

Early in the Trump administration, the White House issued a mandate for every agency in government to come up with plans to reduce its workforce. The administration has since backed away from those plans, though many agencies have seen significant reductions to their rolls. It has also faced significant criticism for exerting improper political influence on career leaders and workforces, with allegations particularly increasing during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Less than half of executives feel they have enough employees “to do a quality job,” the survey found, while just 36% said leadership is held accountable for recruiting top talent. Just one-in-three top officials say their agency has a strategic plan to recruit according to workforce needs. 

Nearly every executive—97%—said supporting agency mission was an important part of their job, compared to 67% who said the same about their salary and benefits. Just one-in-five said it was important to develop their skills so they could move to the private sector. 

The Partnership on Thursday released its roadmap for “renewing our federal government,” suggesting the survey results demonstrated key areas that need to be addressed in a second term for President Trump or a first for former Vice President Joe Biden. It stressed a focus on four areas: leadership and stewardship, talent, innovation and technology modernization, and collaboration.

“Our government is struggling to meet many of the major challenges we face today, in part because we have neglected to invest in and strengthen this critical institution for decades,” said Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service’s president and CEO. The survey results, he added, demonstrate the need for “a comprehensive plan to rebuild our government.” 

The Partnership called for Trump or Biden to appoint leaders "prepared to lead in the public sector," create new strategies for recruiting a more diverse and younger federal workforce, reduce red tape that prevents fresh ideas from flourishing and limit silos across government and other sectors. 

The survey went out to Senate-confirmed and other presidential appointees, non-career and career members of the Senior Executive Service, Schedule C appointees, members of the Senior Foreign Service and other senior managers. It was completed by 992 people between June 22 and Sept. 30, 2020 and has a margin of error between +/- 3.33 and 5.07.