Federal employees still can’t see the link between how well they perform their jobs and their pay increases, according to results from a wide-ranging workforce survey that got nearly 600,000 responses.

Just 26 percent of workers agreed with the statement that “pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs” in the just-released 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Government needs to do a better job of “measuring performance against rewards,” Margaret Weichert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a message on the OPM’s website. Weichert, the government’s top HR official, has made linking pay to performance at federal agencies a top priority. Changes to the federal pay system would affect about 2.1 million employees, including about 1.2 million union-represented workers.

The OPM has conducted the survey every year since 2011. It asks employees in a multiple-choice format questions about their work environments, their leaders, and their overall impressions of their jobs. OPM and federal agencies use results to gauge worker engagement and satisfaction.

The federal pay system isn’t good at differentiating between individuals based on job performance, Peter Morrissey, a project manager at the Volcker Alliance, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 26. This means, for example, that an employee who does exceptional work may not get a significantly higher pay increase than someone whose work is just average. “My take is that it should be more responsive,” Morrissey said.

Congress’s involvement in setting federal pay also is an issue, according to Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president for research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service. Freezes in recent years on across-the-board increases generally provided to federal employees each January likely have contributed to the perception that worker performance isn’t valued, Bulman told Bloomberg Law.

The New York-based alliance and the Washington-based partnership are both nonprofits that focus on making the federal government more effective.

Too Few People Responding?

This year’s survey was sent out to nearly 1.5 million federal employees. About 41 percent of those who received the survey filled it out, a response rate lower than in recent years. The response rate for the surveys in both 2016 and 2017 was 46 percent.

“I was alarmed until I remembered they changed the methodology” by sending the survey out to a much larger number of employees, Morrissey said. The 598,003 employees who responded to this year’s survey is a larger group in absolute numbers than last year’s FEVS survey, and response rates likely will improve in future years as the OPM refines its survey methods, he said.

Only 41 percent of those responding to this year’s survey agreed that the results will make their agencies a better place to work, Bulman said. It’s not surprising that many people aren’t responding if they don’t believe their responses will matter, she said.

The OPM will make “data-driven decisions” based on the survey results, Weichert said in her posting.

“We will look at underlying causes behind employee perceptions in order to replicate those that lead to positive responses and reshape the issues behind the negative observations,” she said.