Do federal civil servants trust the government?
Evidence indicates that civil servants’ trust in government is tied to several critical trends in the federal workforce, including employee engagement, productivity and retention.
But despite a long history of tracking public trust in government, few researchers have addressed the factors that affect federal employees’ trust in the federal system. Filling this knowledge gap could improve employee well-being and performance and, as a result, help agencies meet their mission and improve government effectiveness.
The Partnership for Public Service, with support from Deloitte, is working to better understand federal workforce trust in government and what agencies and administrations can do to improve it. Focusing on the executive branch, our research aims to show the levels, drivers and effects of civil servants’ trust in career and politically appointed leaders, as well as employees’ trust in civil service institutions—which we define as the laws and regulations that guide and protect civil servants and the entities that enforce and safeguard these rules to ensure fair, ethical and effective federal workplaces.
Today, we are sharing three key findings about civil servants’ trust in civil service institutions.
These findings come from a December 2021 online survey of 475 current federal employees—ranging from the GS-7 to the Senior Executive Service levels—representing 35 agencies, as well as 20 one-on-one interviews and 2 roundtable discussions with past and present federal leaders.
What we found
First, survey respondents and interviewees indicated only a modest level of familiarity with civil service institutions.
Six institutions featured most prominently in our research interviews and roundtable discussions: the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Special Counsel, the Office of Government Ethics, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, inspectors general, and federal workforce rules set out in Title 5 of U.S. Code.
Survey respondents reported being “a little familiar” to “moderately familiar” with these institutions on average. Respondents were most familiar with EEOC and inspectors general and least familiar with Title 5—a surprising fact given that this statute governs salary scales, performance management, insurance and retirement benefits, and other aspects of employees’ day-to-day work.
Second, survey respondents and interviewees indicated a correlation between levels of familiarity with and trust in civil service institutions. They reported generally moderate levels of trust in the institutions with which they were familiar—echoing their incomplete understanding of them—and also noted that opaque civil service processes, like investigations and enforcement actions, can limit trust in them.
For example, survey respondents who are familiar with the Merit System Protection Board, the Office of Special Counsel, the Office of Government Ethics, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and inspectors general—entities that safeguard civil service rules—trust them between “a moderate extent” and “a large extent” on average.
Additionally, survey respondents reported between "a small extent" and “a moderate extent” of trust in the laws and regulations designed to protect civil servants—such as the Merit System Principles, which guide federal workforce management, and federal Prohibited Personnel Practices.
The lower levels of trust in civil service protections than in the entities that enforce them correlates with respondents’ relatively low familiarity with Title 5, which authorizes the Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices.
Similarly, respondents familiar with Title 5 trust the effectiveness of workforce rules slightly less— about “a moderate extent” on average—than they trust the entities that enforce them.
The evidence of correlation between familiarity and trust suggests that knowledge about civil service institutions is an important metric and that building awareness among federal employees about civil service rules and the entities that enforce and safeguard them could increase federal workforce trust.
Third and finally, federal employees' trust in civil service institutions is shaped by their perceptions of how leaders understand, adhere to and enforce civil service rules.
For example, interviewees and survey respondents connected their concerns about leaders' bias or favoritism influencing hiring, performance management and promotions to their trust in civil service institutions. Furthermore, some respondents said they wouldn’t report a civil service violation—even if they know how to—citing lack of trust in leaders to prevent retribution or facilitate an effective investigation.
This connection suggests that efforts to increase federal workforce trust in government should focus on improving civil servants’ trust in their leaders, which raises a number of questions that we’ll address in a forthcoming blog post and our final report.
For example, are there variations between civil servants’ trust in their leaders’ intent and competence to uphold civil service rules and protections? Do civil servants trust career and politically appointed leaders differently? If so, how do those trust gaps impact employees’ day-to-day work? And could leadership development efforts help increase trust in federal leaders?
Read our final report, "Trustworthy: Increasing Civil Servants' Trust at Work," which includes a set of recommendations for increasing federal workforce trust in government.