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The state of organizational culture in federal government: Mismatched priorities, unmet expectations

The State of Organizational Culture in Federal Government

federal work culture

According to a new survey by Eagle Hill Consulting, only about half of federal employees (55 percent) say that their organization’s policies align with its core values, the foundation of organizational culture. Our research explores where, why and how this misalignment plays out in federal workplaces.

There is some good news. We found that 70 percent of federal employees say they feel proud to work for their organization. That is a strong foundation to work from, especially in today’s hot talent market, where, according to statistics published by the National Conference of State Legislatures, nationwide unemployment just hit a fresh 50-year low in September.

Despite their positive orientation toward public service consider that not even half of respondents in the same survey (49 percent) say they would stay at their organization, if they were offered a comparable position elsewhere with similar pay and benefits. The contrast forms a stark reminder of just how much organizational culture matters.

What’s the matter with culture matters?

Numerous studies and articles have highlighted the importance of culture. An August 2018 Gallup poll, for example, shows that companies with top employee engagement enjoy 21 percent more productivity than organizations with the least employee engagement. A January 2018 article in Forbes, “The Three Guiding Principles for Creating an Intentional Culture,” describes how “organizations that are purposeful about this culture/strategy dynamic routinely outperform their competition that lack focus in this area.”

Perhaps nowhere are the arguments for effective culture more persuasive than in federal government, where across the board, agencies are grappling with human capital issues. Federal agencies are keenly affected by changing needs within an evolving (especially digital) environment.

  • Aging workforce, where according to August 2018 information from OPM, government workers over 60 outnumber those under 30 nearly two to one.
  • Inability to keep pace with the private sector in the competition for younger workers.
  • The subsequent skills gap that results with demand for current technology skills far outpacing supply.

If a strong culture is key to developing and retaining an engaged, productive workforce, then federal government agencies need to recognize how heavily culture weighs on their mission performance.

Our survey shows federal employees already feel connected to the mission. Why don’t they feel as connected to the organization itself? And perhaps more important, how do federal organizations get them to feel connected?


Federal employees underscore the crucial role of organizational culture.

Employees recognize the importance of organizational culture. In fact, an overwhelming majority (86 percent) of respondents say culture has a direct impact on their organization’s success (Figure 1).

federal organizational culture 1

Importantly, employees recognize that their organizational culture matters at an individual level as well. Seventy-nine percent of respondents say culture impacts their productivity and efficiency and 76 percent say it impacts their ability to best serve their customers.

Perhaps even more intriguing, about three quarters of all respondents (74 percent) say culture impacts their will to do good work, underscoring that employees see culture not merely as an external (potentially limiting) factor, but as an important driving force from within.

In other words, culture informs not just what federal employees can do, but at a much more basic level, what they feel like doing. In essence, culture is setting the de facto organizational mindset that determines how well the mission can be accomplished.

Misalignments in organizational culture lead to a troubling experience for employees.

Federal employees often choose to serve in the public sector over the private because they are motivated by the mission: they believe in the good purpose of the organization and the personal satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference in people’s lives.

In their January 2019 New York Times article, “Why Don’t Unpaid Federal Workers Walk Off the Job?” authors Jim Tankersley and Thomas Kaplan quoted Jacqueline Simon (the director of public policy for the largest federal workers’ union) as saying, “Federal employees are extremely devoted to the mission of their agencies. They don’t just fall into these jobs. They believe in public service; they believe in what they do.”

However, our survey shows that federal employees feel their organizations do not practice what they preach. For example, while 75 percent of respondents say their organization has core values, only 55 percent say the organization’s policies align to its core values (Figure 2).

federal organizational culture 2

In fact, less than half (46 percent) agree that the way the organization advertises itself aligns with their experience, with fully 25 percent of respondents disagreeing (Figure 3).The mission of public service—by definition, working to the assistance and benefit of society at large—appeals to employees’ deeply held notions of community, altruism and service. But our results indicate that employees feel their agencies may be going off course in important ways.

federal organizational culture 3

While the majority of federal employees in our survey cite more tangible elements (teamwork, customer service, and diversity/inclusion) as being part of their culture, less than half see crucial, less tangible elements, such as respect, integrity, and innovation as active elements of their organization’s culture. (Figure 4).

federal organizational culture 3

Culture is a difficult idea to corral. Perhaps not surprisingly, in our experience, Eagle Hill repeatedly has seen both public and private sector organizations take an initiatives-focused approach to it. Building teams, ramping up diversity/inclusion efforts, and introducing customer satisfaction metrics are all laudable efforts. They are also far easier to conceptualize and implement than ideas on how to motivate people to act with integrity.

Yet these more difficult elements are every bit as crucial. They define an organization. That so many federal employees don’t recognize these elements in their culture may mean they are cluing into a fundamental inauthenticity in their workplaces. Perhaps as a result, while 7 in 10 of respondents feel proud to work at their organization, only 6 in 10 are happy working in their organization, and 3 in 10 are open to exiting it. These employees may feel that the goals of the organization are laudable, but how the goals are achieved is less so.


Federal leadership has a trust problem.

Eagle Hill’s federal culture survey found that only 61 percent of respondents trust their direct supervisor. And when it comes to the top levels of leadership, more federal employees distrust their executive leadership (40 percent) than trust them (38 percent) (Figure 5).

This result is particularly stark when compared to the results from a similar survey Eagle Hill conducted at a national level. In that survey, 58 percent of respondents agreed they trusted their executive leadership—a difference of 18 percentage points from the federal survey results.

Figure 5 also shows that less than half (44 percent) of federal employees surveyed believe the leadership in their organization addresses their concerns. Federal organizations should feel disconcerted by their employees’ evident lack of confidence in those steering the ship. Humans are social beings, and our connectedness to each other comes from trust.

Believing in the solidity and supportiveness of their relationships equips people to handle the bumps of daily existence, including in the workplace. Conversely, lack of trust impacts well-being. Not feeling confident in the authenticity of their relationships puts people on their guard—and leaves them primed to look for an escape.

federal organizational culture 5

Eagle Hill’s survey shows that the lack of trust trickles down and across all levels of the organization. In our survey, only 6 in 10 respondents feel connected to and trust their colleagues (Figure 6). Here, we highlight the connection between trust and people’s will to do well, described earlier. An employee that trusts co-workers feels part of a bigger picture—and that cohesion adds real and important meaning to work.

federal organizational culture 6

As Emma Seppälä writes in her 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “Positive Teams Are More Productive,” a workplace characterized by “positive and virtuous practices” excels in improving relationships, which in turn amplifies employees’ creativity, buffers against stress, attracts employees, and enhances loyalty.

From executive leadership, to team leads, to colleagues, we find significant and pressing opportunity for improving trust in federal organizations. Leaders at all levels must exemplify the stated values of the organization; employees should be provided avenues and encouraged to participate in building their organizational cultures.

Approach your culture in a wholly new way

Federal agencies looking to build authentic, positive and supportive organizational cultures should get ready to roll up their sleeves and make deliberate and substantive changes. Download the full report to learn how.