Environment, energy gigs aren’t what they used to be

Source: Emily Yehle and Robin Bravender, E&E reporters • Posted: Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When U.S. EPA was founded in 1970, Bill Ruckelshaus had thousands of applications from would-be employees who wanted to be part of an agency with a cause they believed in.

“From the beginning, the morale was sky high,” the first EPA administrator said in a recent interview. “People were excited and enthusiastic and working around the clock because they had this cause that they were working for.”

The thrill is gone. An agency that was once home to some of the government’s happiest employees now ranks just average in morale. And EPA’s not alone: Employees at the Interior Department and the Energy Department are also on par with other federal workers when it comes to their overall job satisfaction, according to a recent government survey.

“Average” may not sound bad, but it is a low point for mission-driven agencies with a reputation for drawing enthusiastic employees. They are bastions of passionate intentions — whether that’s framing energy policy or saving endangered species.

And yet employees at EPA, DOE and Interior are far less satisfied than those at the Railroad Retirement Board, Social Security Administration and Office of Personnel Management, among others, according to the latest survey from OPM.

They suffer from the same problems affecting workers across the government: pay freezes, forced time off, congressional assaults on employee benefits and uncertainty about federal budgets. Add constant Republican criticism of the Obama administration’s energy and environmental policies, and these jobs aren’t looking as attractive as they once did.

Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said “there was a real esprit de corps” at DOE when he headed the department in the Clinton administration. “There was a real pride in working at the department.”

But now, “I walk around the buildings — I was recently at Energy — a lot of federal employees, they’re victims of sequestering, they don’t get raises … they’re kind of down,” he said.

Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s deputy chief of staff, said federal workers’ problems “are just stacked one on top of the other.”

‘Devaluing of public service’

At Interior, overall satisfaction was at 60 percent this year, a drop of 7 percentage points in the last three years. But Lee-Ashley hypothesized that most of the agency’s employees just want the stability to be able to do jobs they love.

“You talk to them about what they do on a daily basis, and they love it. The substance of work is interesting and demanding and makes a difference both for community and resources,” he said. “It’s external pressure and things the agencies personally don’t have a lot of control over that create anxiety.”

Take the 16-day government shutdown in October. The most recent government survey was taken before agencies shut their doors, which dealt another blow to workers’ already sagging morale.

Now Congress is struggling to negotiate a budget to avoid a second shutdown in January and replace sequestration cuts. But whether they will succeed is uncertain — and with that uncertainty comes conservative spending, reduced travel, hiring freezes and the constant fear that a program will be on the chopping block.

Bob Abbey, the former director of the Bureau of Land Management, said employees also feel like no one is on their side.

“What you have going on right now, among many things, is what public servants feel is a lack of support from Congress and, to some degree, even the administration,” he said, citing the pay freeze, growing workloads and proposals for pension reductions. “It’s just the devaluing of public service by members of the public and by members of Congress.”

That’s perhaps even more true at EPA, where employees have seen Republicans vilify the agency for “job-killing” regulations while pushing for deep budget cuts.

‘Tired of what they’ve had to put up with’

Just three years ago, EPA’s overall satisfaction rate was at 72 percent, OPM said, a whopping 12 points above what it was in 2013.

“I think what’s changed is public attitude,” Ruckelshaus said. “Support for EPA is nowhere near as uniform as it was 40 years ago, and that’s just bound to affect people in the agency.”

James Barnes was Ruckelshaus’ first chief of staff at the newborn EPA. He remembers that people chose to work there not just “to get a job” but because they felt that something “really important” was happening. “I think they felt good about themselves when they told their children what they were doing with their lives,” he said.

The recent slump in morale could have effects beyond the employees. “I worry some about what it augurs for the ability of the agency to get the job done,” said Barnes, now a professor of law and public and environmental affairs at Indiana University. Some EPA employees are looking to retire, and many are “kind of tired of what they’ve had to put up with.”

He said he’s also seeing a smaller number of his students pursuing federal jobs in energy and environmental fields than he once did with more going to work at nonprofits or jobs at the state and local level.

DOE, too, has dropped 7 points in overall satisfaction since 2010 to 60 percent this year, OPM found.

Like Interior and EPA, the Energy Department has a history of drawing in recruits committed to its mission.

“I think it’s very much a mission-driven agency, but with a much broader range of missions than at several of the others,” said Dan Reicher, a former Clinton administration DOE official who is now a Stanford law profess

“There’s such a broad range of activities from the nuclear weapons stockpile to a range of clean energy programs to the basic sciences,” he said.

The agency has also seen its fair share of criticism from congressional Republicans during the Obama administration, including a firestorm surrounding DOE’s investment in the failed Solyndra LLC solar energy company.

Across environmental and energy agencies, “the political dialogue has not been conducive to employees feeling good about what they do,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit aimed at improving government jobs.

Mission matters

Not all morale problems can be blamed on Congress.

The Partnership for Public Service released a report in September detailing several steps agencies can take to increase job satisfaction of their workforce. Among them: Articulate organizational values, act on employee feedback and hold agency leaders accountable for workplace improvements.

When morale data are broken down, leadership is always one of the most important factors, Palguta said. “Consistently, every year, the No. 1 driver, if you will, is leadership.”

Having a strong sense of mission is also important across agencies, he said.

“The mission is important in the sense that when employees choose to go to that organization, whether it’s to mint coins or do intergalactic research … the ability of employees to do that is important to them,” Palguta said.

Agency leaders can help with that, he added. “They’ve got to build in their employees that sense of mission, they have to give them that line of sight between what you’re doing and something good is happening for the country because of it.

The Forest Service has long ranked at the bottom of the partnership’s annual “Best Places to Work” survey. And a recent internal survey found that 55 percent of agency employees think the Forest Service is accomplishing its mission (Greenwire, Sept. 25).

Andy Stahl, the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, partly attributed the agency’s low morale to problems with its mission. Once an agency focused on timber, he said, it has struggled over the past two decades to redefine its land management mission, all while using more and more of its budget to fight wildfires.

“The Forest Service has not been able to articulate its new mission, and partly that reflects an inherent ambiguity,” Stahl said. But he also believes much of the workforce is stuck in the past. “You can’t have a new mission for a large agency unless you have a sustainable majority of employees to buy into it.”

BLM carries a similarly vague mission — with employees balancing land use with preservation — but it has fared better in morale, ranking in the middle of the pack among the “Best Places to Work” list.

Still, challenges are ahead as workload increases, training opportunities diminish and budgets dwindle. But Abbey asserted that the key to better morale was within agency control.

“The key concern among employees is workforce capacity and lack of support,” Abbey said. “It can be mitigated, and what is needed is clear direction and routine communication between agency leadership and the workforce.”