Flagging morale? Survey points to employee unhappiness at the National Institutes of Health.

Flagging morale? Survey points to employee unhappiness at the National Institutes of Health.

National Institutes of Health

NIH Takes Steep Fall in Best Places to Work Survey

The latest survey of U.S. government workers confirms that 2013 was a tough year to be a federal employee. And the malaise from sequestration and continued political gridlock (although the survey was taken 5 months before the 16-day government shutdown in October) seems to have been felt especially hard by those working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey released this week records a 3–point drop in the average score across all government agencies, to 57.8 on a scale of 100. That’s the third straight decline, and the lowest score in the survey’s 10-year history. The news for NIH is even worse: Its score plunged by 6.5 points, to 62.7.

The biggest factor in an organization’s performance is what workers think of their bosses, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzes the survey done each year by the Office of Personnel Management. And NIH Director Francis Collins and his team took it on the chin this year: NIH’s score on effective leadership fell by 4.2 points, to 55.4.

“I think it’s a trickle-down effect from a lot of factors,” says Phil Lenowitz, deputy director of NIH’s Office of Human Resources. “These things weigh you down, and you start looking for someone to blame.”

Lenowitz says those factors include a continued pay freeze, a 30% cut in travel budgets, and the elimination of a pot of money for year-end bonuses for exceptional service. Although these belt-tightening measures were mandated either by the White House or Congress, Lenowitz thinks that some employees may want to blame their bosses for not “pushing back harder.”

Some 376,000 federal workers filled out the 84-question survey, and the response rate was 48%. Most federal research agencies cluster slightly above the midpoint for all federal units. (Click here to see table.)

The National Science Foundation, for example, earned a score nearly identical to NIH’s, at 62.8. But that number represents a 1.4 point jump from 2012. And NSF’s leadership team—which changed 2 months before the survey was taken when Subra Suresh resigned and Cora Marrett was named acting NSF director—scored 3.7 points higher in 2013.

NASA earned the highest score among large agencies (those with more than 15,000 employees), gaining 1.2 points to 74. And two of its subunits, Langley Research Center and Goddard Space Flight Center, topped the parent agency with identical overall scores of 76.1. Although the agency as a whole did well, NASA headquarters suffered a 2.2-point in its rating, to 67.8.

The Smithsonian Institution, which conducts its own survey and feeds the results to the Partnership for Public Service, did even better than the space-related agencies, with a score of 77.2. And the Patent and Trademark Office topped the charts among science-related organizations, recording a 4.1-point rise to 84.4.

Although it’s impossible to make a causal connection between the continued roller coaster budget rides and worker attitudes toward their agency, this year’s survey contains data that seem to point in that direction. The Office of Management and Budget, the White House’s lead agency in the budget wars, fell 14 points this year, from an impressive 70.7 in 2012 to a middling 56.7 in 2013.