Some good news, few surprises in new survey

Federal Workers

February 02, 2007|By Melissa Harris

Much of what could be gleaned from a recent governmentwide survey of federal workers already was known.

The Department of Homeland Security is disorganized, and workers at smaller agencies with very specific missions, such as the National Science Foundation, generally have warmer feelings about their jobs than workers at larger agencies.

One surprise, however, is improvements in workplace morale at the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration since the Office of Personnel Management started soliciting feedback in 2002.

Employees gave more positive responses last summer to all but a handful of the questions that were repeated from the survey three years ago.

For instance, 71.1 percent of the more than 1,300 survey respondents at Social Security reported that they were satisfied with their jobs, compared with 64.8 percent in 2004. Despite hiring restrictions and budgetary concerns, 58.3 percent of employees said their workload was reasonable, a significant jump from 43.8 percent three years ago.

Workers' satisfaction with their training, with opportunities to get a better job within the agency and with communication among departments and from managers has improved, according to the survey.

Social Security also ranked among the top 10 of all federal agencies in two areas: leadership and knowledge management and job satisfaction.

"I wish it was as easy as putting something in the water," said Reginald F. Wells, the agency's deputy commissioner for human resources. "I think it reflects the consistency of leadership we've had over the last five years with Jo Anne Barnhart and her focus on human capital."

Despite improvements, the agency scored low in categories in which the bureaucracy as a whole is weak:

25.7 percent said steps have been taken to "deal with" poor performers, an improvement from a dismal 19.6 percent three years ago.

30 percent said differences in performance among employees were recognized in "a meaningful way," up from 25.5 percent.

38.5 percent of respondents said the agency handled complaints, disputes or grievances fairly, an improvement of 4 percent.

"We've operated many, many years under a pass-fail evaluation system," Wells said. "We've moved away from that, and that change wouldn't have been captured in this survey. The next survey should reflect a performance management system that relies heavily on two-way communication ... and will help us get our numbers in a better place."

One area, however, where survey results captured a continuous slide is diversity. Positive responses to the agency's diversity programs and policies declined from 60.9 percent in 2002 to 58.6 percent in 2004 and 55.7 percent in 2002.

Also in 2002, the agency settled a class action lawsuit for $7.75 million filed by black men, claiming that they were passed up for promotions and training opportunities, unfairly evaluated and punished too harshly.

"The whole business case for diversity is a very delicate thing because if you increase the numbers of one group you're inherently reducing the numbers of another," Wells said. "One real good thing to come of [the litigation] is that we track this information very, very closely."

The survey did not isolate responses from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, also in Woodlawn, or the National Security Agency in Anne Arundel County.

Fines overturned

Three attorneys and their supervisor in an Iowa Social Security office have been cleared of millions of dollars in proposed fines over their legal writings after the agency's inspector general settled the case.

Inspector General Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr. had accused the attorneys of improperly using expert testimony in more than 700 opinions for a now-deceased administrative law judge. The employees argued that they re-used the testimony without the expert's knowledge at the judge's direction.

The fines had reached staggering figures because all of the judge's decisions favored the people applying for disability benefits. Under agency rules, the employees can be fined $5,000 for each opinion they wrote or edited plus twice the amount awarded to claimants for the alleged "false statements."

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement that O'Carroll's "complete capitulation" shows that the "employees did nothing wrong."

Jonathan Lasher, a spokesman for O'Carroll, said that the settlement was in the best interest of the agency and in no way condoned the conduct of the attorneys.

"The unauthorized reproduction of evidence from one disability case and its improper use in more than 700 unrelated cases as a `quick fix' means of accelerating the [disability] process in one hearing office suggests that legitimate efforts to eliminate or reduce backlogs have not been successful," Lasher wrote in a statement.

As part of the settlement, the attorneys will participate in an audit of the disability appeals process.

The writer welcomes your comments and suggestions. She can be reached at melissa.harris or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at www.baltimoresun .com/federal.

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