— After a year that saw sequestration, furloughs and a partial government shutdown, half of the federal workforce is considering leaving for the private sector, a marketing firm has found.

The top reasons they are thinking about a move, according to a survey of current federal workers by Market Connections Inc.: a three-year pay freeze, the political environment in Washington and the lure of a better salary in the private sector.

Market Connections surveyed employees from mid-December to mid-January, when Washington was offering the workforce a few glimmers of hope: Congress was negotiating a budget deal that eased sequestration cuts and reduced the likelihood of more furloughs or another shutdown, and President Barack Obama ordered a 1 percent pay raise for federal employees.

Still, the results reflect continuing insecurity and frustration among workers.

"This survey clearly shows that continuing budget cuts and the current hostile environment for federal employees is doing irreparable harm to the government's ability to retain highly skilled and qualified employees," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "The morale of the federal workforce continues to drop and that signals serious consequences for our country."

Market Connections, based in Chantilly, Va., performs polls, surveys and other research for federal agencies and contractors. When the firm conducted the survey of 370 civilian and defense workers for the newsletter FierceGovernmentIT, Market Connections President Lisa Dezzutti expected the percentage of employees who acknowledged considering a job switch to be "a big number." But she didn't anticipate it would reach 50 percent.

"That's really being driven by what people have been through in the last year," Dezzutti said. "It is clear that the recent political environment and agency staffing practices are affecting federal morale."

Dezzutti said the survey, conducted online from among a representative sample of federal employees, has a margin of error of 5 percent.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, says the number of employees the survey shows are considering leaving the federal government appears high — research by the Office of Personnel Management and his own organization has produced much lower percentages. But he says the "basic point" is "right."

"Federal employees are unhappy," Stier said. "There is a valid and real worry that the public and the leadership in government and around government ought to have that federal employees aren't being treated in a way that's conducive to keeping them in public service."

The Partnership for Public Service encourages Americans to consider working for the federal government. Stier said the budget deal and the pay raise should have a positive effect on employee morale, but "I don't think we're out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination."

"More than anything else, federal employees are most distressed by the limitations on their ability to effectively achieve their mission," he said. "The craziness of last year, whether it's the shutdown or the sequestration or the lack of budgets, all that, fundamentally, was most damaging because it prevented people from doing what they cared about.

"To the extent that the fever has broken, and some sanity has returned and people are able to do their jobs, that's all to the good. That said, I think that federal employees continue to work in very challenging environments."

Stier sees hope. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service produces a report on the best places to work in government. While the 2013 rankings, released in December, showed that job satisfaction across the government had declined for a third straight year, satisfaction improved at one in four government agencies.

"What that tells me is that even in an environment where there are brutal head winds, that superlative leadership can overcome that," Stier said.

"To me, the most important thing you could do to actually improve these numbers and to create a more engaged workforce across the board would be to have leadership that is much more effective at engaging and motivating their workforce.

"Part of that starts with just caring about it — seeing that as a priority. The president talked [during the 2008 presidential campaign] about making government cool again. But what we haven't seen is any real focus on that as an issue."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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