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(Photo credit: Department of Agriculture/Farm Production and Conservation/Preston Keres)
Public trust in the federal government has been a spotlight issue in recent years, serving as a barometer of the health of our democracy and the political environment as the country has experienced serious social, public health and economic challenges.1
But federal employees’ trust in government institutions is largely overlooked. The importance of such trust is starting to be understood but deserves more focus. Research indicates that public servants’ trust at work is associated with their engagement and productivity as well as the longevity of their federal careers. Another study shows that engaged federal employees tend to provide better customer service, which in turn helps improve the public’s experience with and trust in government.
Recognizing that workforce trust is an indicator of government effectiveness and a driver of public trust in government,2 the Partnership for Public Service, with support from Deloitte, examined civil servants’ trust in two key dimensions of the federal government—(1) government leaders and (2) civil service rules and their enforcement—and what agencies, administrations and Congress can do to improve it. Trust in leaders is a critical condition for government effectiveness as it can motivate employees to be innovative, to collaborate, to invest extra effort in their work and to perform beyond expectations.3,4 Trust in the framework of the civil service is necessary for civil servants’ faith in the integrity and sustainability of their work and careers.
Specifically, we sought to understand the levels, drivers and effects of civil servants’ trust in:
This report includes insights gathered from 20 one-on-one interviews and two roundtable discussions with current and former civil servants, career leaders and political appointees, as well as an online survey of 475 federal employees at more than 35 agencies. It details what we learned from the more than 500 people who contributed to this study about the dynamics and impacts of federal workforce trust—and highlights opportunities to increase it. Though not statistically representative, our research findings provide an important snapshot in time of the civil service that we believe can inform efforts to increase workforce trust government-wide. (See the report’s Methodology for more details.)
According to the federal employees who shared stories and ideas for this study, there are a number of opportunities to increase their trust in leaders and in the framework of the civil service. This report includes the most practical recommendations for improving workforce trust that could be undertaken by Congress, administrations, the entities that safeguard the civil service and individual agency leaders—including supervisors, other career leaders and political appointees. These recommendations could also be useful to frontline staff and others interested in the wellbeing and effectiveness of the federal workforce.
Because workforce trust is a subjective experience, we asked research questions that allowed interviewees, roundtable participants and survey respondents to define what trust means to them through their stories of working in the federal government.
The federal employees who contributed to this study described trust in terms that align with the definition of trust in individuals and institutions synthesized from academic literature by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The definition was created in an effort to improve the international comparability of trust measures: “a person’s belief that another person or institution will act consistently with their expectations of positive behavior.”6
In addition, Deloitte’s TrustID model informed our research design. The model, which Deloitte’s research suggests can help increase public trust in government, is based on four trust signals—humanity, transparency, capability and reliability—that demonstrate the two foundational attributes of trust: competence and intent. Deloitte developed this model through in-depth research grounded in the existing body of evidence that trust is relational in nature and that increasing workforce trust improves employee engagement and productivity.7 Using the TrustID model as a template, we asked interviewees and survey respondents about their trust in the intent and competence of career and politically appointed leaders.
(Photo credit: Department of Agriculture/Tom Witham)
We pursued this research to better understand the nature of trust in the federal workplace. To start, this study considered the levels of civil servants’ trust in career and politically appointed federal leaders as well as what drives their trust in them. Interpersonal trust between public servants and their leaders is important as it is associated with efficient and accountable federal agencies and public trust in government.8
This indicates that government leaders have a large amount of influence over federal workforce trust, which accords with other research that shows effective leadership is the key driver of federal employee satisfaction and commitment.9 It also suggests that leaders bear a large responsibility to act in ways that maintain if not increase the trust of their staff.
Through an online survey, we asked current civil servants about their levels of trust in the intent and competence—the two foundational attributes of trust—of career and politically appointed leaders relative to 11 factors that reflect commitment to civil service rules, effective leadership and employee engagement.10 As illustrated in the charts below, survey respondents11 indicated that on average they have similar levels of trust in career leaders’ intent and competence but that they trust their intent slightly more. Their levels of trust in political appointees show a similar pattern.
Click to enlarge both charts.
One possible reason for this small difference may be a predisposition of public servants to preemptively trust the intent of their leaders. Civil servants’ perceptions that leaders share common motivations or mission interests could induce assumptions of their good intent.
A related reason may be the greater difficulty in assessing intent than competence. Whereas measures of competence can be objective—such as whether leaders succeed or fail to achieve stated goals—the benchmark for intent is subjective. Efforts to support diversity and inclusion can highlight this distinction. As one survey respondent wrote, “Our leaders say all the right words [about diversity], but then do not hold officials accountable to hard metrics for hiring and promotion.”
Interviewees and survey respondents indicated that civil servants tend to have somewhat more trust in career leaders than in politically appointed leaders, with some noting that appointees can have difficulty earning trust if staff perceive them to lack the institutional knowledge that many career leaders have or perceive them to be driven by a political agenda. Survey respondents specifically reported on average between a “moderate extent” and a “large extent” of trust in career leaders. As seen below, this is slightly higher than their trust in politically appointed leaders, which they reported being between a “small extent” to a little more than a “moderate extent”.12
Survey respondents said that they most trust the intent and competence of both career and politically appointed leaders to achieve mission and to be committed public servants. This accords with the observation of many interviewees that career leaders tend to be motivated public servants dedicated to their staff and government effectiveness. Despite small differentials in trust in career and political leaders, this finding also suggests that civil servants see the potential of political appointees to be good stewards of government.
On the other end of the spectrum, survey respondents reported lower levels of trust in both career and politically appointed leaders to be transparent and to support their federal careers. They also indicated similar levels of trust in both types of leader to protect them from arbitrary action, political coercion and reprisal for whistleblowing, which may be due to communication issues. If leaders do not demonstrate their commitment to civil service rules and their motivation and ability to enforce them, federal employees may be left to assume the opposite. Regarding appointees specifically, survey respondents said they least trust them to support their federal careers, which aligns with interviewees’ perceptions that some appointed leaders are more focused on implementing political agendas than on supporting their staff.
Survey respondents reported a positive relationship between their trust in their leaders and their engagement and performance at work, echoing findings in academic literature.13 In particular, respondents said that when they trust career leaders, they experience on average a moderate increase in:
When they trust political appointees, they also experience an increase in these factors—but only between a minor and moderate extent.
Overall, our government works best when it has a full team of capable and committed individuals serving in career and politically appointed leadership positions, matched with missions, agendas and teams that align with their distinct approaches and perspectives. As prior Partnership research has shown, however, several dynamics can work against their success. The current and former federal employees who contributed to this study indicated that the trust imbalance between career leaders and political appointees is generally due to several differences in the nature of their positions, which should be better understood when developing and appointing leaders.
Interviewees, roundtable participants and survey respondents identified seven interconnected attributes of interpersonal leadership that cultivate trust, which our literature review validated. These attributes can be adopted by career and politically appointed leaders at all levels, and they align with the Partnership’s Public Service Leadership Model—which is a tool career and politically appointed leaders can use to evaluate their performance, assess their leadership development and chart a course for self-improvement.
Below are the attributes of interpersonal leadership that drive workforce trust as well as examples of them shared by contributors to this study.
Federal leaders can cultivate trust by being transparent in their decision-making and actions and by communicating honestly, clearly and frequently with their staff. Such demonstrations of respect are often reciprocated by mutual trust. Bilateral communication is especially effective to this end. This involves not just seeking input or inviting feedback, but also responding to it.
“If you want to build trust, you need staff to feel like they’re part of the solution not the problem,” explained John Palguta, the former MSPB official.
Examples of this attribute shared by interviewees, roundtable participants and survey respondents include the following.
Doesn’t Look Like
“Promises are the building blocks of trust,” said Kevin Mahoney, senior advisor at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “Whether staff like the outcome has less bearing on workforce trust than whether the promise is kept.” A survey respondent agreed, noting that nothing breaks trust faster than a leader saying one thing and doing the opposite, suggesting that reliability, consistency and accountability are critical factors of federal workforce trust. Furthermore, according to Palguta, “A culture of mutual accountability creates a culture of trust.”
Fostering professional development can engender workforce trust because it demonstrates leaders’ commitment to their staff as well as to the principles of the civil service.21
Genuine care for others is fundamental to gaining trust, so federal leaders need to intentionally and actively understand the perspectives and experiences of their staff. “When you care for the individuals in your workforce, they have the ability to accomplish the mission in a much more effective and sustained way,” Sampson said.
“Leadership that prioritizes creating a culture of trust can transform a workplace from one with low levels of trust to one with high levels of trust,” explained Adhir Kackar, the acting director of the federal and state division of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Community Revitalization. According to the federal employees who contributed to this study, a workplace culture of trust is built on respect and mutual care, factors that incorporate the other attributes of interpersonal leadership described here.
To cultivate a workplace culture of trust, it is necessary to support a diverse workforce and to foster equity and inclusion for all employees. “I will trust only when I feel everyone is treated equitably and with respect,” explained one survey respondent.
While agencies government-wide have developed—per a June 2021 executive order—a strategic plan “to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the [federal] workforce” and must do so annually going forward,23 it is critical that these plans be realized through concrete and meaningful actions. Pro forma efforts will likely be seen as hollow gestures, according to interviewees, and could undermine trust in leaders’ support of DEIA.
Learn more here.
Intention alone is not sufficient for federal leaders to cultivate workforce trust. They must also be competent administrators who are focused on mission over politics and who are deeply knowledgeable about and committed to upholding the rules of the civil service.
(Photo credit: Department of the Interior)
Administrations and agencies should support leadership development efforts that focus on cultivating workforce trust.
Administrations and agencies should emphasize the importance of trust in accountability mechanisms.
Congress should establish a standard for leadership development and performance for both career and politically appointed leaders. Such a standard should account for knowledge about and commitment to civil service rules as well as for interpersonal leadership skills associated with workforce trust. Currently, federal leadership development programs are fragmented across government. By offering a common leadership standard by which to develop and assess federal executives, Congress can ensure leaders receive the necessary training and are evaluated via annual performance plans according to competency standards.
Leaders should cultivate workplace cultures of trust by adopting management practices that emphasize interpersonal leadership. Specific actions toward this end could include:
Administrations and agencies should strengthen leaders’ knowledge of and commitment to civil service rules and the processes and entities that enforce them.
Leaders should demonstrate their commitment to upholding civil service rules and their expectations of staff to do the same. This could be done by establishing values—like the Mission Values and People Values of the Government Accountability Office—that set the tone for office culture.
Leaders should encourage and facilitate professional development and other growth opportunities. Such opportunities include mentorship programs, inter- or intra-agency detail assignments, and cross-sector collaborations via the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program or talent exchanges, such as the Department of Defense’s Public-Private Talent Exchange program. These investments of time, focus and budget demonstrate leaders’ dedication to and belief in their staff—and can yield mutual trust between them. For the greatest return on such investments, they should be part of a continual effort to enhance the skills of public servants.
Congress, administrations and agencies should actively foster diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in order to ensure that all civil servants are able to thrive in public service by working in a fair and ethical environment that reflects the demographics of our country. Career and politically appointed leaders at all levels should take concrete and measurable steps to implement their agency’s annual DEIA plan26—such as prioritizing equity in promotion opportunities, sponsoring staff affinity groups and proactively organizing safe spaces for honest dialogue about workplace and societal challenges. Administrations, meanwhile, should share government-wide successful DEIA strategies from individual agencies. Finally, Congress should assess each agency’s DEIA performance and hold hearings on DEIA progress.
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)
In addition to trust in leaders, this study explored public servants’ perceptions of the rules of the civil service and entities that enforce them, which were designed to help the federal government operate effectively, efficiently and equitably—all factors that drive public trust in government. Notably, when asked about the civil service framework, interviewees, roundtable participants and survey respondents focused more on their trust in federal leaders to adhere to the rules than on the actual rules and enforcement processes.
The civil service framework is also a key factor in the accountability that bolsters public trust in government. Civil service rules and enforcement processes exist to help supervisors and managers address and resolve workplace problems—such as sexism, waste and conflicts of interest—by holding federal employees accountable. They are also designed to hold leaders accountable, helping to prevent nepotism, whistleblower retaliation, inefficiency and other behaviors that erode public trust in government. By instilling a sense of responsibility in staff and leaders, the civil service framework helps ensure federal employees fulfill their missions and serve as stewards of public trust.
The rules and entities highlighted in this report maintain the guardrails of federal employment. They set the standards of public service, providing critical guidance to all civil servants, including career leaders. They also protect employees from discrimination, retaliation, favoritism and other threats to fair, ethical and effective federal workplaces. Finally, they are the mechanisms for holding civil servants accountable to each other, their leaders and the American public.
Specifically, Title 5 of U.S. Code is the legal framework for federal employment. It covers hiring practices, the General Schedule salary scale, and most of the other civil service rules and enforcement entities highlighted in this report—including the Merit System Principles; Merit Systems Protection Board; Prohibited Personnel Practices; Office of Government Ethics; Office of Special Counsel; and inspectors general.
The entities that safeguard the civil service addressed in this report—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, inspectors general, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Government Ethics and the Office of Special Counsel—enforce civil service rules by investigating workplace challenges like inequitable pay, fraud and financial conflicts of interest; by holding violators of these rules accountable; and by providing redress to employees who report or experience them.
To understand federal employees’ trust in civil service rules and the entities that enforce them, it is first necessary to assess their knowledge about them.
For this reason, we asked survey respondents about their familiarity with the parts of the civil service framework that, according to initial research, are most prominent in federal employees’ work experience:
Together, these served as a proxy of the overall civil service framework for this study.
According to interviewees, roundtable participants and survey respondents, federal employees typically have limited, generalized awareness of the framework of the civil service. Many have some knowledge, but few have detailed understanding of specific rules, let alone the entities and processes that enforce them.
On average, survey respondents reported being “a little familiar” to “moderately familiar” with the civil service framework.27 They were most familiar with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—which combats hiring and workplace discrimination—and agencies’ inspectors general, who investigate waste, fraud and abuse. They were least familiar with Title 5, the statutes that govern pay, benefits, performance management and other aspects of their day-to-day work experience.
One striking example of limited familiarity is that only 62% of survey respondents said they know how to report a violation of a civil service rule.
Survey respondents and interviewees largely attributed their lack of familiarity to insufficient efforts to educate federal employees about civil service rules and the mandates of the entities that enforce them. As one respondent wrote, “I have been a civil servant for 30 years, and almost nothing I know about these institutions came through official work channels.” This echoes a 2016 study by the Merit Systems Protection Board, which estimated that less than half of federal managers and supervisors had received extensive training on the Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices, and that some had received no training on them.28
Federal employees also cited the opacity of civil service processes such as investigations and enforcement actions as a reason for their limited knowledge. One survey respondent described the need for clearer guidance on the civil service framework, “written for laypersons and published transparently on OPM’s website.” Without additional transparency, another survey respondent explained, “I think many people get these different offices [responsible for safeguarding the civil service] confused or don’t even know that these protections exist.” Given that, according to Rita Sampson, former director of OPM’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility, “We have to do a better job of letting people in the [federal] workforce know that when you follow these processes or use these processes, positive change can and will happen.”
To that end, some contributors to this study called for digestible summaries of investigations of civil service violations (without identifying information). “Real case studies, better stories that government employees can read in five minutes and see the scope and values of the civil service institution reflected,” suggested one survey respondent. They also said that just aggregated data—which ensures privacy—about the number and types of civil service violations and what was done in response to them helps improve the understanding of the rules and enforcement mechanisms.
The federal employees we interviewed and surveyed reported modest levels of trust in the civil service framework on average, similar to their levels of familiarity with it. This finding suggests neither a crisis of faith nor overweening confidence in the existing system—and also indicates efforts to increase civil servants’ trust in the civil service framework are warranted.
For example, survey respondents who are familiar with the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Special Counsel, the Office of Government Ethics, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and inspectors general reported trusting them to enforce the rules and protections of the civil service a little more than “a moderate extent” on average.29 While they most trusted inspectors general and the EEOC and least trusted OGE, the trust differential is small, as seen in the following chart.
Survey respondents reported on average between “a small extent” and “a moderate extent” of trust in the laws and regulations designed to protect civil servants, which is a slightly lower than the levels of trust in the entities that enforce them. Many civil service protections are codified in Title 5 of U.S. Code—including the Merit System Principles, which guide federal workforce management, and the 14 federal Prohibited Personnel Practices—and the lower levels of trust in them echo respondents’ lower familiarity with Title 5 rules.
Respondents familiar with Title 5 rules reported trusting their effectiveness—to ensure fair hiring, employee equity, clear paths for career advancement and effective performance management—between “a small extent” and “a moderate extent” on average. They least trust Title 5 to ensure supervisors can effectively address inadequate performance. Otherwise, as seen in the following chart, their levels of trust are similar across categories.
Remarkably, of the 62% of survey respondents who know how to report a civil service violation, 90% said they would, indicating a high level of trust in protections from retribution despite a moderate level of familiarity with them.
The apparent connection between respondents’ familiarity with and trust in the rules of the civil service and the entities that enforce them suggests that familiarity is a driver of workforce trust in the civil service framework. Because it is hard to fully trust something not well understood, increasing federal employees’ knowledge of the framework may be a way to improve their trust in it. Furthermore, according to a 2019 Merit Systems Protection Board study, increasing familiarity with civil service guardrails like the Prohibited Personnel Practices could improve their effectiveness, which also could increase workforce trust.30
In addition, according to contributors to this study, a number of other interconnected dynamics influence workforce trust in the civil service framework. These factors are explained below:
Limited knowledge about civil service rules and the authority of the entities that enforce them can skew civil servants’ expectations about them. When federal employees’ expectations of the civil service framework are not met—even if such expectations are unrealistic—the ensuing disappointment can easily morph into mistrust.
For example, not all public servants understand the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which adjudicates allegations of workplace discrimination and is authorized to provide “make whole” relief—such as monetary payments and job placements that put the person who experienced discrimination “as near as possible in the situation [they] would have occupied” if it had not occurred.31 What the EEOC does not do is discipline federal employees. Those who do not understand this may be dismayed when EEOC adjudications end without the agency directly punishing violators of civil service and EEO laws.
“They want EEOC to come in and put managers in handcuffs and bring them out of the building,” explained Dexter Brooks, associate director of EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations. “And when they don’t see that type of accountability it creates kind of a frustration and a distrust— ‘Oh, these laws are not doing anything.’”
Previous direct or indirect experiences federal employees have had with civil service rules and processes can also influence their trust in them. Based on personal experience with or perceptions of colleagues reporting a civil service violation, for example, many survey respondents said they think investigations of violations usually side with agency management over staff—in part because they believe agencies are better equipped than staff to navigate civil service processes. “The chances of prevailing are slim,” one wrote, “because the deck is stacked in favor of the government.” Another respondent added, “The entire structure for reporting and addressing issues is designed to put the victim in a more vulnerable position.” As a result, wondered a third, “How do you prove favoritism? You can’t really.”
Furthermore, of the 10% of survey respondents who said they know how to report a civil service violation but would not, many cited their perception of insufficient protections from retribution as the reason why. “Actual real-world evidence shows that whistleblowing remains a very dangerous endeavor,” one wrote. Similarly, fear of retaliation is one reason why employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have not reported perceived instances of political interference, according to a 2022 Government Accountability Office report.32
Some survey respondents and interviewees, however, described frustration with the civil service framework’s ability to hold low-performing employees accountable. Others said their trust in the framework is undermined by what they described as employees’ “frivolous” claims for civil service protections.
Transparent civil service investigations, enforcement actions and other processes may be able to bolster confidence in civil service rules as accountability mechanisms. Such transparency can help ensure, according to survey respondents, “that there is no bias,” “that the civil service workforce is protected from political coercion and unfair treatment” and that “employees who abuse various systems are actually held accountable for their actions.”
Transparency can be rooted in efforts to educate federal employees about the civil service framework, including onboarding sessions, routine professional development and other trainings focused on the rules of the civil service, the enforcement entities and how to engage them to redress civil service violations.
For example, according to the Merit Systems Protection Board, when agencies conclude that alleged violations of Prohibited Personnel Practices have not occurred, they “should seek to do a better job of explaining to employees the reasons behind management decisions [perceived to be violations] so that employees can better understand the merit-based reasons for a particular outcome and avoid misperceptions in the future.”33
Available data about investigations, enforcements and other civil service processes is another important part of this transparency—but availability alone is insufficient. Such data must also be easily accessible, widely promoted and in compliance with federal privacy rules to influence workforce trust.34
“Prohibited Personnel Practices work. But I think there’s a transparency problem where not everybody sees that they work,” explained Rita Sampson, former director of OPM’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility. “If people don’t know what happened to the person who filed the complaint or the outcome of their complaint, then sometimes they just don’t want to go that route [of seeking redress for civil service violations].”
The No FEAR Act of 2002 requires agencies to collect and publicly report statistical data about violations of employment discrimination and whistleblower protection laws and the outcomes of the resulting investigations.35 While we did not specifically ask interviewees and survey respondents about the statute, the fact that only a few federal employees acknowledged it when asked about their familiarity with civil service rules is further evidence of the need to improve awareness of and access to data that tracks civil service processes. (Awareness of such data, however, may increase with the passage of the Elijah E. Cummings Federal Employee Antidiscrimination Act of 2020, which updates the No FEAR Act by requiring agencies to post notifications on their website about findings of discrimination or retaliation. These notifications must remain posted for at least one year.36)
Another driver of trust, according to survey respondents and interviewees, is the ability of the agencies and offices charged with protecting the civil service to operate effectively. Sufficient staffing of these entities is critical as position vacancies and the disruptions of turnover can backlog investigations and delay their resolutions. Suggested one survey respondent, “Fully staff them so they can adequately respond to situations and strengthen their enforcement powers.” For example, the Merit Systems Protection Board operated without a quorum between January 2017 and March 2022, leaving it unable to issue final decisions on employee appeals of agency personnel actions. In addition, staff shortages can limit communication about these prolonged processes, leading to frustrations with the black-box effect that can harden into doubt about efficiency, integrity and reliability.
According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, “The primary responsibility for avoiding [Prohibited Personnel Practices]—and attaining the ideals described in the [Merit System Principles]—lies with the employing agencies.”37 This may be why the federal employees who contributed to this study indicated that the biggest driver of their trust in the civil service framework is how career and politically appointed leaders understand, adhere to and implement civil service rules. For example, consistent enforcement of rules cultivates trust in their equity, whereas inconsistency can erode that trust. Similarly, supervisors and managers who prioritize the merit principles when hiring and promoting staff may engender confidence in them, whereas those who do not might undermine faith in the guardrails designed to prevent nepotism. This underscores the importance of leaders’ commitment to the civil service framework. It also suggests that workforce trust in the framework can be bolstered by ensuring leaders have a fluent understanding of civil service protections, accountability mechanisms and the responsibilities of the entities that enforce them.
(Photo credit: Department of Housing and Urban Development)
The Office of Personnel Management and the entities that safeguard the civil service should increase the transparency of their processes and make it easier for the workforce to understand and access protections and the mechanisms of accountability.
Agencies and the entities that safeguard the civil service should more prominently highlight data they are authorized to share about investigations of civil service violations and related enforcement actions.
For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides ongoing training to federal agencies. “We offer customized training for federal agencies and about 54 open enrollment classes on a wide variety of topics to our federal community,” said Patricia St. Clair, an assistant director for federal sector program in EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations.
Existing requirements for agencies to educate their staff about the civil service framework include:
“We also work with managers and senior leaders across the federal government to ensure that they are working to advance EEO objectives and to create model EEO workplaces. We communicate a lot of this through our social media and through our various communication initiatives…. And we recently started about two years ago a community of practice. It’s our EEOC Education Consortium, which is for federal EEO practitioners. It’s a meeting place for them to come together and discuss federal laws as well as the trends and the leading and promising practices that we’re seeing for EEO across the federal government.”
The entities that safeguard the civil service—with support from administrations and Congress—should maintain adequate staff capacity to effectively support federal agencies and employees.
Future efforts by Congress, administrations or individual agencies to better understand and increase federal workforce trust should incorporate data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey administered by the Office of Public Management and the Merit Principles Survey periodically administered by the Merit Systems Protection Board. Previous iterations of both surveys included questions about workforce trust.41 In addition, federal leaders may want to use other existing or develop new tools to collect statistically representative trust data from their staff.
(Photo credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration/Joel Kowsky)
This study examined federal employees’ trust in their career and politically appointed leaders as well as their knowledge of and trust in civil service rules and the entities that enforce them.
Federal workforce trust is an important indicator of government effectiveness, as civil servants who trust their leaders and the rules that guide and protect them are more likely to be engaged in their work, dedicated to their mission and productive. As a result, workforce trust also may influence public trust in government.
Regarding workforce trust in career and politically appointed leaders, we found that:
Regarding trust of the civil service rules and the entities that enforce them, we found that:
The findings, recommendations and resources offered in this report provide practical steps to increase federal employee trust in government leaders and the civil service framework. Workforce trust cannot be taken for granted, and it is up to both career and political leaders at all levels to champion ongoing efforts to earn public servants’ trust—and in the process strengthen the workforce and make government more effective and responsive to public needs.
Paul Pietsch, Senior Research Manager, oversees the Partnership’s federal workforce research portfolio. He believes in the ideal of government of the people, by the people and for the people—which is why he served in the Peace Corps, attended state universities with pride and owns the “West Wing” box set. Paul’s research career has focused on improving policy, programming and management practices at state and federal agencies. His favorite public servants are the career staff of the National Endowment for the Arts, who work tirelessly to increase access to the arts in communities big and small throughout the country.
Our research included a literature review, 20 one-on-one interviews and two roundtable discussions with past and present civil servants, as well as career and politically appointed leaders. Through the interviews and roundtables we talked to a total of 33 people from 22 different agencies. They did not officially represent their respective agencies but rather shared their personal perspectives.
To encourage candid conversations, we conducted the roundtable discussions on a not-for-attribution basis. Most interviews were done on a not-for-attribution basis as well—though we did several for-attribution interviews with the consent of the interviewees. We are not including in this report the names, titles, job functions or other identifiable information about the contributors to this study who did not wish to be quoted.
To supplement the interviews and roundtable discussions, we also conducted an online survey of current public servants and career leaders.
In total, this study engaged with more than 500 current and former federal employees who shared their personal experiences at 49 different federal agencies.42
We administered an online survey from Nov. 23 through Dec. 10, 2021. We sent the survey to 4,692 current civil servants and career leaders who are alumni of four of the Partnership’s federal-employee training programs—Excellence in Government Fellows, Foundations in Public Service Leadership, Mission Support Leadership and Preparing to Lead. In total, 475 people from 38 agencies responded, for a response rate of 10%. Respondents ranged between the GS-11 and Senior Executive Service levels. They shared their personal perspectives and did not officially represent or identify their agency. We removed any potentially identifying information from the dataset before conducting our analyses to preserve anonymity and ensure responses could not be connected to a specific person.
Designed to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, the survey included 15 closed and seven open-ended questions about respondents’ familiarity with and trust in civil service rules and the entities that enforce them; respondents’ trust in career and politically appointed leaders; whether respondents’ trust in leaders influences their engagement and productivity; and whether respondents’ perception of public trust in government influences their trust in federal leaders and the civil service framework. The closed questions consisted of 10 matrixed Likert scale questions and five yes/no questions.
The survey also included 14 closed and two open-ended demographic questions.
Respondents were allowed to skip any questions in the survey they did not wish to answer, which resulted in the total number of responses per question varying from 473 to 337.
The survey was not deployed to a population identified through probability sampling, and the results are not statistically representative of the federal workforce. In addition, because all the respondents are alumni of Partnership training programs, survey results may reflect a response bias.
Because far fewer respondents answered the demographic questions than the trust questions, the sizes of individual demographic cohorts are insufficient to enable statistically accurate comparative analysis between them. For this reason, the report does not break down survey results demographically. Future research about federal workforce trust should include statistically representative surveys that enable conclusive demographic analysis.
(Header photo credit: Department of Agriculture/Tom Witham)
Loren DeJonge Schulman
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