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July 26 — Partisan bickering among the commissioners at the Federal Election Commission—along with micromanaging by commissioners, poor communications and failure to fill top management positions—are causing dismal morale among FEC employees, according to a new report.
Past governmentwide surveys have found the FEC consistently ranks low in employee morale among federal agencies.
The new report, commissioned by FEC Inspector General Lynne McFarland, drew from detailed surveys of 185 FEC employees and dozens of interviews and focus groups with rank-and-file staffers, managers and five of the six commissioners. The report concluded the FEC's problems start at the top.
“Employees fault the commissioners for much of the low morale at the agency,” said the report written by consultants Doug Rosenthal and Sue Pressman of Job Performance Systems Inc.
The divisive tone set by the FEC commissioners—equally split among three recommended by Democrats and three Republicans—impacts how rank-and-file employees feel about their jobs, the report said. Employees who interact with the commissioners said they were “put on the spot or attacked” and “felt like pawns in a larger battle between the commissioners.”
A statement issued by the FEC through the agency press office thanked the Office of Inspector General for its efforts and also thanked those who contributed to the morale study, especially FEC staff.
“We are reviewing and considering the report carefully, and plan to work with staff to develop constructive solutions,” ” the statement said.
One commissioner, Republican Caroline Hunter, responded separately to the report in a comment e-mailed to Bloomberg BNA.
“Commissioners should not dilute their strong commitment to legal principles for the sake of staff morale,” Hunter said. “Disagreement at the commission is often based on significant constitutional and ideological principles. Agency lawyers, like lawyers everywhere, aren’t strangers to conflict and should stand ready to defend their work, as most in the agency do.”
Hunter added that the FEC recently has made great strides in technological advancements, including the website redesign and ease of access to disclosure data.
“Many of our bright staff members have participated in these positive developments,” she said.
The gridlock among the commissioners has contributed to delay in the of filling top agency staff posts by permanent appointees. This also contributes to long-term damage to FEC morale, the report found.
The current senior staffers at FEC—including some serving for years in an acting capacity—were cited as a major cause of low morale by agency employees. Most employees rated the agency's top staffers—the staff director, acting general counsel, and acting chief financial officer—as ineffective and said these officials “failed to maintain high levels of honesty and integrity.”
No response on behalf of the FEC commissioners or top managers was included in the report. Other observers outside the agency said the new report shed light on old problems.
Former FEC staffer Bob Biersack said in an e-mail to Bloomberg BNA that it was “pretty hard to create a satisfying work environment when the leaders of the organization either actively challenge its legitimacy and/or use its work to score debating points sometimes at the organization's expense.”
Problems among the FEC commissioners almost inevitably lead to administrative leadership that doesn't “rock the boat,” Biersack said. He added that it was hard to imagine that any sort of initiative toward making the FEC process work well would be rewarded, when it isn't at all clear what “working well” means.
Biersack, the FEC's former press officer and chief statistician, is now with the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. He added that the FEC's work is challenging even without these problems, given the important changes of recent years in campaign finance rules coming from the courts and Congress.
Former FEC General Counsel Lawrence Noble, now with the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said the report on low morale was “not a surprise to anyone who follows the FEC.”
Noble added in an e-mail that the new report did not directly address the root cause of problems at the FEC, which he blamed squarely on the three Republican FEC commissioners: Hunter, FEC Chairman Matthew Petersen and Commissioner Lee Goodman.
“Problems such as commissioners not taking action on staff reports, not valuing the staff's work, refusing to delegate, failing to fill positions and poor communications are not by-products of poor management practices,” Noble said. “They are the methods by which three of the Republican commissioners have tried to ensure that the agency does not function to enforce the law.”
The Republican commissioners have responded to such criticism in the past by pointing to court decisions rolling back campaign finance rules for impinging on First Amendment free speech rights—rights the FEC Republicans say they're trying to uphold.
Taking the opposite tack from Noble was David Keating of the nonprofit Center for Competitive Politics, who blamed the Democratic FEC commissioners for criticizing their own agency as ineffective.
Keating pointed to comments last year from Democratic Commissioner Ann Ravel, who agreed with an interviewer on a Comedy Central television show that the FEC is as useful as “nipples on a man.”
Ravel later discussed the interview at an FEC open meeting, at which she was challenged by Hunter and said she was expressing frustration at the Republicans for failing to enforce the law.
Keating maintained, however, that it was critical comments from Ravel and the other two commissioners holding Democratic seats on the FEC, Steven Walter and Ellen Weintraub, that were to blame for morale problems at the FEC.
Keating said the FEC commissioners must find a way to cooperate and compromise, given that Congress intentionally structured the agency to be bipartisan. This was done to ensure that one political party could not abuse the power to enforce the law against a rival party, as he said former President Richard Nixon did in the Watergate scandal the spawned modern campaign finance laws.
Keating added that these laws made significant changes in the campaign finance system by imposing disclosure requirements and contribution limits that still are enforced by the FEC today.
As for problems filling top FEC staff positions, Keating blamed this on antiquated provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act that limit the salaries for the FEC staff director and general counsel and thus limit the pool of applicants for these jobs. The FEC commissioners have agreed on legislative changes that would fix this problem, but Congress has not acted on the recommendations, Keating noted.
The long-standing problems in filling top FEC staff positions have been cited in past criticisms of the agency. These include a report released last year by McFarland, the FEC inspector general, which repeated earlier criticisms that the agency has left its top staff positions vacant or understaffed for years, damaging its ability to fulfill the mission of providing transparency in campaign financing (See previous story, 11/19/15).
The FEC has not had a permanent general counsel since Anthony Herman left more than three years ago . The agency's chief enforcement attorney, Daniel Petalas, was elevated to become acting general counsel last year, but there has been no word since then about whether or when a permanent general counsel appointment would be made by the commissioners.
The new report was especially critical of Alec Palmer, the FEC's staff director. Some staffers said they “felt misunderstood, treated with suspicion, or unfairly attacked by the Staff Director,” the report said.
The report also cited as a cause of morale problems the fact that Palmer, while serving as staff director, also is the agency's chief information officer, heading the FEC information technology division. This dual role has led to management problems, the new report on FEC morale said.
Having no full-time manager in charge of information technology was blamed by FEC employees for problems in getting new computers, for example. The report cited stories that new laptops ordered for FEC staff were delayed so long in being configured and distributed that the computers could go out of warranty before being used.
Among the specific recommendations of the report, other than filling top management positions on a permanent basis and delegating authority to these top managers, was to place a priority on separating the jobs of staff director and chief information officer.
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