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The Public Manager Magazine Article

2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

The latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ratings spotlight highs and lows for federal agencies.


Tue Mar 03 2015

2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government-ec972217725f9afbd3135438067342a0c46402955062f9253f2fe5169dc67a8d

There is no doubt that times have been difficult for federal employees. During the past several years, the nation's civil servants have dealt with a government shutdown, furloughs, budget reductions, pay freezes, hiring slowdowns, and a highly negative political climate. These events clearly have taken a toll, creating an employee morale problem as evidenced by the findings in the 2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

Based on the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the Best Places to Work data show that federal employee satisfaction with their jobs and workplaces fell for a fourth consecutive year, dropping 0.9 points for a score of 56.9 out of 100. This is the lowest Best Places to Work score since the rankings were first launched in 2003, and it is well below the job satisfaction ratings given by employees in the private sector.


Produced by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte, the rankings provide a government-wide and agency-specific look at employee satisfaction and commitment. The rankings also offer a window into the views of employees on a range of critical workplace issues, alerting managers to problems, providing a roadmap to address concerns, and helping executives to better manage and motivate our government's most important asset—its people.

In this current challenging environment, federal leaders need to focus on what they can control in the work environment to improve employee job satisfaction and commitment.

Federal employees, by and large, are highly dedicated to their missions. It is up to managers to create a constructive environment that will enable employees to succeed even amid events outside of their control. This effort must not only include those at the top rung, but also mid-level managers and supervisors as well, and all should be held accountable.

The Highs and Lows

The 2014 edition of Best Places to Work ranks agencies based on employee satisfaction and whether they would recommend their organization as a good place to work. It also examines employee views of 10 workplace categories, such as effective leadership, employee skills-to-mission match, pay, teamwork, and innovation.

The top-rated large federal agency from the employee perspective is NASA, followed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Department of State, and the various agencies that comprise the intelligence community such as the CIA and the U.S. Department of Justice.


For mid-size federal agencies, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) leads the pack, followed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Smithsonian Institution, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Surface Transportation Board is the top-rated small agency, followed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the Peace Corps, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is in last place among the 19 large agencies, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is at the bottom for mid-size agencies. The lowest marks for small agencies went to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and the Federal Election Commission.

Although the employee satisfaction and commitment ratings for government as a whole declined, the Best Places to Work data show that 43 percent of federal agencies bucked the trend, demonstrating that positive change can take place even when times are tough.

Strategies for Success

Federal agencies have applied many strategies to improve their work environments, including rewarding and encouraging innovation, increasing the number of training opportunities, improving communication with employees, encouraging feedback, and partnering with unions.

The leaders at NASA, the top-rated large agency, believe that a great deal of their success lies in how they encourage innovation among their employees. The agency has multiple methods of rewarding employees for thinking creatively and carves out some time for employees to pursue new ideas.


Many other agencies have enlisted their employees' help to generate and drive creative solutions. One example is the U.S. Department of Labor, which improved its ranking from 17th to 10th place among the 19 large federal agencies, and registered gains in all 10 workplace categories that were measured, including leadership, training, pay, rewards and advancement, and teamwork.

Seema Nanda, the department's deputy chief of staff, said Labor Secretary Tom Perez came to office in July 2013 "understanding that employee satisfaction and engagement is critical to our effectiveness and our mission."

Perez held an off-site training session for senior leaders to outline a broad workforce strategy and to get buy-in, asking staff to examine employee survey results and to develop specific plans, while also focusing on issues such as training, encouraging innovation, and improving supervision.

In addition, Perez has improved communication and solicited feedback from employees by holding town hall meetings and having management teams visit regional offices for separate group-listening sessions with employees and managers.

The department also created

an internal online site called Idea Mill, a crowd-sourcing tool that allows employees to submit ideas, offer comments, and vote on the proposals submitted to a leadership committee that includes union representatives and staff members from the human resources department and the offices of the secretary and deputy secretary.

Another example can be found at the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), which in 2007 recorded the lowest employee satisfaction and commitment score in the history of the Best Places to Work rankings and was last among small agencies. It has since made a remarkable turnaround, placing 5th out of 30 small agencies in this year's rankings.

The FLRA's leaders made em-ployee job satisfaction a high priority and continuously consult with staff members and union representatives to improve the agency culture and deal with a range of workforce issues. The agency initiated a pilot project that resulted in the use of paralegals after attorneys felt the extra help would lead to greater productivity. In other instances, managers have collaborated with employees to temporarily alter work assignments to meet pressing agency needs.

There also has been regular communication with employees, including a newsletter, town hall meetings, listening tours by leaders with employees around the country, and a labor-management forum to discuss employee survey results so problems can be addressed quickly.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also is making positive strides. It is the most improved mid-size agency in the 2014 rankings, marking the second year in a row it has increased its Best Places to Work score after a period of decline. The SEC's chief human capital officer, Lacey Dingman, said Chairwoman Mary Jo White has "made employee engagement a top priority."

One of White's first actions after being appointed in early 2013 was to conclude agreements with the National Treasury Employees Union that allowed some employees to telecommute as many as five days a week, expanded child-care subsidies, and permitted new flexible work schedules.

The SEC established joint

labor–management partnerships in each office and division, and launched an "All Invested" initiative that has included efforts to celebrate staff accomplishments and create more cohesiveness around the agency's

mission. The leadership also has held regular town hall meetings to engage employees and maintain an open dialogue.

Steps for Agency Leaders

With the recent release of the 2014 Best Places to Work data and OPM's annual employee survey on which it is based, agency leaders and managers have a wealth of data available to help improve their agency's work environments.

Managers need to understand the data, identify areas of weakness, and discuss the findings with employees to better determine what is going on. Employees must be consulted at staff meetings, in personal discussions, and through focus groups.

More importantly, they should be included in the decision-making process as it evolves and as priorities are developed. It also is important to engage labor union representatives, who can provide insights, identify key issues, and help build employee trust for the effort.

Agency leaders should identify several quick wins, along with developing long-term plans. Acting expeditiously on easily fixable problems will help employees see that leaders are listening to them. And when they see tangible results, it will help to build trust and participation in the future.

Leaders would be wise to appoint a group of employee champions to help facilitate the initiatives that are chosen, and clearly communicate their intentions and goals to the workforce. As the plans move forward, managers should solicit feedback, let employees know about the progress, and make adjustments as needed.

The bottom line is quite simple: Federal managers have jobs to do, but they need a committed and engaged workforce to succeed. Listening to employees, both through survey results and personal communication, and then taking positive steps to improve the workplace will lead to greater effectiveness and result in better outcomes for everyone—especially the American people.

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