Report: FEC leaders, managers share blame for horrid morale

Commissioners' ‘poor staffing decisions,’ 'negative tone' particularly vexing

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Bickering commissioners, ineffective managers and lousy internal communication rank among the top reasons why the Federal Election Commission staff is one of the federal government's most bedraggled.

That's the dispiriting — if unsurprising — conclusion of a new report from the FEC's Office of Inspector General, which for months had conducted employee surveys and interviews in hopes of answering a nagging question: why, specifically, is agency morale so consistently rotten? 

Investigators dump the most blame on the FEC’s six commissioners: three Democratic appointees and three Republican appointees who have regularly criticized one another and frequently (but not exclusively) deadlocked on high-profile political issues before them.

“Tone and attitude perceived as poor,” the report said of the commissioners.

“Too many disparaging public statements … employees feel work not valued,” it continues.

The report also scolds the commissioners for failing to hire for top management positions, either placing people in “acting” roles or simply leaving key jobs unfilled.

The FEC, for example, has gone three years without a permanent leader for its legal department — despite its congressional mandate to administer and enforce federal election laws.

For those managers in place? The staff views them with “suspicion and distrust,” the report states. Staffers also routinely questioned why a single person, Alec Palmer, served as both staff director and chief information officer.

A culture of favoritism and fear also persists, according to the inspector general’s report.

“A number of people believe that rewards, good assignments and promotions unfairly go to managers’ favorites,” the report states. “A sign of the major gulf between employees and upper management was the fear that employees have of retribution should they voice their concerns.”

In all, only about one in four FEC employees agreed that the tone set by top FEC officials is “generally positive” and that their work is “valued by the commissioners.”

Fewer than one in four surveyed agreed that Palmer, the staff director and chief information officer, is an “effective leader” — the rest either disagreeing or expressing no opinion.

The Office of Inspector General Report undertook its research in response to a separate U.S. Office of Personnel Management report that last fall ranked FEC staff morale second to last among 41 small federal agencies studied.

More than half the FEC’s staff — 185 people — completed a detailed survey circulated by the Office of Inspector General, which also personally interviewed 78 agency staffers and conducted four focus group sessions.

“It's sobering and sad to hear that our hardworking and committed employees feel that their important work is disrespected by the commission and by senior staff,” said Ann Ravel, a Democratic commissioner who served as FEC chairwoman during 2015. “Low morale exacerbates and is exacerbated by the dysfunction at the Commission.”

The agencies five other commissioners could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

In a previous interview with the Center for Public Integrity, FEC Chairman Matthew Petersen expressed optimism that the commissioners could improve morale not only among staffers, but the commissioners themselves.

“I have no personal animus for any of them,” he said. “I don’t feel like this is a miserable place to be.”

(Update: 5:11 p.m. Tuesday, July 26: On Tuesday afternoon, the six FEC commissioners released a joint statement to the Center for Public Integrity. "We thank the Office of Inspector General for its efforts and everyone who contributed to the morale study, especially agency staff," it reads. "We are reviewing and considering the report carefully, and plan to work with staff to develop constructive solutions.")

So, what do FEC employees believe would improve their job satisfaction and outlook?

Among their suggestions, according to the report:

  • Commissioners should have a better “appreciation of the impact their statements and behaviors have on the workforce.” Their statements and actions are “perceived by employees as signs of a partisan culture that is too often negative, unpleasant and adversarial.” Some employees “felt like pawns in a larger battle between the commissioners.”
     
  • Build a more diverse staff that isn’t “predominately white, male managers.”
     
  • “More frequent and detailed communication from senior management,” including faster updates about staffing changes, IT breakdowns and the status of a possible move of the agency’s headquarters.
     
  • Hold top managers accountable for “raising the quantity and quality of output from chronically disaffected and unmotivated employees.” If such employees don’t respond, managers must take “necessary steps to discipline and/or remove those employees who are not fulfilling their responsibilities.”
     
  • Provide more opportunities to climb the agency’s job ladder. “[M]any employees feel discouraged about their changes for advancement and promotion. This has created high levels of frustrations among many,” the report states.


Investigators reported that they “heard few stories in our interviews with employees in which they said their thoughts were solicited and acted upon by upper management. What we heard more frequently from employees was the belief that their thoughts were either not welcomed or unlikely to impact decisions of top management.”

The report concluded with a warning to agency brass: "Commissioners and top management would not be serving the agency well by seeking reasons to discount the findings in this study. Instead the commissioners and leaders need to make a commitment to improve agency morale and invest the necessary time and resources to make a real difference." 

Ravel, who has herself frequently sparred with her Republican colleagues on numerous matters before the agency, concurred.

“Management and the commission must improve communication, and make the employees a priority, including by providing a path to advancement,” she said. “The commission itself should make personnel decisions based solely on the best interests of the FEC, and should make those decisions thoughtfully and in a timely fashion.”

Despite their misgivings, FEC employees overwhelmingly said they still believe in the agency’s congressionally defined mission: “to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of presidential elections.”

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