Publisher's Perspective

Go around your workplace and ask people what benefit is most important to you and you likely won’t be surprised.


Retirement and health insurance long have been the twin towers of federal employee benefits, what attract many people to government service and what tend to keep them there, especially as they get farther into a career and the payoff at the retirement finish line comes in sight.

OPM recently decided to investigate the obvious by sending out a survey to a sampling of federal employees called the Federal Benefits Survey. This will be the fourth time the survey has been conducted in its present form, the most recent being in 2011. Before that, certain benefit questions were included in government-wide surveys on broad workplace issues, but more recently benefits have gotten their own survey.

One interesting thing about all this polling is that OPM has made the results of the first two surveys easily accessible by posting them on its website. However, the 2011 survey results have circulated only within the small community of benefits administrators and experts; the compilation is available on request, but you have to know to request it.

Let’s put aside for now the irony of using public money to take a public poll of public servants about benefits that are paid for by the public and determined by publicly elected officials, and then making the results eyes-only.

Instead, let’s look more closely at the potential lessons of these surveys.

They have showed that over time, federal employees increasingly are becoming grateful for their health insurance benefits in particular. Over the time since the first benefits survey was taken in 2004 there has been substantial degrading of health insurance coverage in the private sector – for current employees and especially so for coverage of retirees.

For example, 86 percent say their FEHB coverage is "extremely important" (another 8.2 percent say it is "important"—those few outliers probably get health coverage through their spouse’s employment). That’s up by 11 points over 2006, up by 13 over 2004.

Retiree health benefits similarly were tabbed as important or very important to 94 percent of employees.

Critics of the FEHB program—and they are out there, no question—might have been surprised to learn (if they were in the chosen few whom OPM deemed worthy of seeing these numbers) that 63 percent of the workforce says the FEHB meets their needs to a great extent and that another 32 percent say it meets them to a moderate extent.

By that measure, too, FEHB has increased, rising 10 points since 2006.

Similarly, FEHB and retiree health benefits were termed good or excellent values by 70 percent of respondents, increasing by five and six points, respectively over 2006.

The story was pretty much the same on the retirement benefits side. Both the defined benefit portion of retirement and the Thrift Savings Plan received overwhelmingly positive ratings in terms of importance, meeting needs and value. As with health insurance, this comes at a time when many private sector companies have cut back or eliminated such benefits.

Federal workers clearly know where their bread is buttered. The only question is whether political leaders will see that and decide that butter is too rich for them and they should be able to get by on margarine instead.

Given that the new employee survey likely will reflect those same trends, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the workforce if OPM buried its results too.