The Washington Post

The best places to work

Dec 13, 2012

Max Stier and Lara Shane discussed the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, which were released Thursday.

Good Afternoon! My name is Lara Shane, VP of Research and Communications at the Partnership for Public Service. Thank you for joining us to chat about our 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings. We are excited to hear from you.

Hello All!

This is Lisa Rein, the author of today's story in the Post. I write about federal workers and am eagerly waiting to hear/see your feedback on the Partnership survey..

I have worked for a Navy lab for almost 40 years and, until recently, considered it one of the best places to work. Not any more. While I still believe in our mission, and feel that our work is important, the bureaucratic burden has become unbearable. It used to be that those of us who were mangers could insulate the scientists and engineers so that they could concentrate on their technical work. Not any more. The bureaucracy now trickles down to employees at all levels. It has definitely been a factor in rapidly dropping morale. Is this being seen at other agencies?

Yes, I think this a big challenge for government. In our effective leadership category, one of the issues we examine is empowerment, and it's one of the places  where government really struggles. At Navy, fewer than half of federal employees say they feel empowered with regard to work procesess, and sadly Navy is doing much better than other agencies.

There seems to be no data (except one item, diversity). Explain the #2 ranking. Thank you.

GAO does not participate in OPM's FEVS survey since they are a legislative branch agency. However, they include our three overall index questions in their survey, so we are able to include them in the rankings.

We hope they'll include some of the other questions in the future, so we can include them in category rankings as well.

Great report as always. It would be good to have examples of PMFs at Best Places. Also, not all agencies (Leg) have PMFs. Can you also talk about the new PMF 2013, where one can apply more than once. How is PMF selection criteria different now than before? Will number of PMF increase as those who are not happy now at agencies will retire? Should Federal govt. increase PMFs for this reason? Thanks.

All great questions about the PMF program. We actually published an issue brief on the perspectives of Presidential Management Fellows back in October that you might find interesting, called First Impressions From the Class of 2011. Generally PMFs are about as satisfied as other young federal employees new to government, but no one has really studied this group over time.

We hope to follow the most recent cohort and see how many stay, how many leave and if their satisfaction increases or decreases. It would also be great to see how many go on to leadership positions.

We think this is a really important program for attracting new talent and we'd love to see government use this program more and others like it.

This is Max Stier and I very much appreciate the opportunity to "chat" about the Best Places to Work rankings.

How can Federal employee counter public perception that we do no work and just suck up the public money?, when in fact I became 30% more busier than I was at private. I have more rapid deadlines and better quality of people that I had in 12 years in the  private sector?

We have a lot of work to do to change public perception of the federal work force and I believe it begins with better internal communications inside government.  There are approximately 2 million federal civilian employees and many don't know much about the great work being done by their colleagues.  If the federal workforce consciously and consistently communicates to their networks about all the good that is being done by federal employees, we'd come a long way to turning the tide.  I also believe that we need to do a better job of explaining what different federal agencies do to improve the lives of our fellow citizens.

In the spirit of Bipartisanship, are there SOPs in the Best Places to Work which could be implemented in all government offices to make them more efficient and more desirable to work at so that the government agencies are recruiting and retaining some of the best and brightest to serve the country?

Every agency has its own unique challenges, and that's one of the cool things about the rankings - you get to see variability in scores in a variety of categories.

That said, there is a lot of commonality around the issues of empowerment and communications. Employees don't feel satisfied with the extent that they are involved in decisions that affect them, nor are they satisfied with information they receive from management.

If agencies make a concerted effort to involve their employees more in decision-making and to share information from senior leadership, I think a lot of progress could be made. I also think if managers and senior leaders could share success stories from across their agencies - people would feel more excited and motivated by their work. The problems federal workers are tackling are daunting  - and communicating progress is important.

Why is DOJ's Antitrust Division ranked so low within the subsection group. It is one of the lowest ranking subsections in the federal government?

The Antitrust numbers are very troubling and hit close to home for me because I used to work there in the early 90s.  It is worth noting that DOJ has a couple of divisions that are doing very well, which makes the contrast even worse.  I know that the Antitrust Division has had to deal with some real disruptions, like closing field offices, but that can't be the whole story.  The number one factor driving employee satisfaction and commitment across government is leadership, and that is where I'd recommend further investigation.  I have heard very good things about Bill Baer and I hope he gets confirmed quickly to run the Antitrust Division.

The people working in the various government agencies are a combination of Federal Employees and Contractors. I realize the Federal Government is a much bigger employer than any of the companies that provide contractors, but I feel that for most news purposes, the contractors are ignored, even though we work side by side. While we don't have the same benefits, we are impacted by the same budget problems. Shouldn't there be a bigger picture that looks at both employees and contractors?

Hi there.. my story should probably have said that contractors were not part of the survey. I agree that contractors and feds often work side by side and the picture can be very different for each group. take NASA, which has something like 40,000 contractors. thousands of them were laid off when the shuttle program ended, but not the federal employees.

Based on results to question 22 of survey - are promotions based on merit? - only one third of federal employees believe they now are, and this percent is steadily declining in past four years. It is a "prohibited personnel practice (PPP)" when a promotion is not based on merit - it may be one or more of several types of PPP - reprisal, unlawful discrimination, personal favoritism, nepotism - but it is a PPP when a promotion is not based on merit. Do you agree with that contention - it is a PPP when a promotion is not based on merit? How much different when federal civil service be if 70% or more of feds perceived promotions were based on merit, in your opinion?

I agree this is  hugely troubling number and strongly suggests that the general process of identifying the best candidates for promotions is not working.

I think that the perception of public workers has worsened in the bad economy. People across the country who've been laid off from private companies have a heightened perception that in government, life is cushy. It may or may not be.. but there is more job security in government as a rule, and in a climate of economic uncertainty that can create resentment

It is always a challenge to find an employer who understands the juggling act that working moms perform. What are the best agencies that exhibit flexibility with teleworking and flex schedules? Which agencies have onsite (or nearby) daycare? Which agencies are best for driving to the office instead of having to drag children on public transportation? Any agencies offer this trifecta?

Check out the category on Alternative Work and Employee Support Programs...employees rated NASA, Department of Commerce, EPA, Treasury and HHS as the top five. That category includes questions on alternative work schedules, childcare, eldercare, and other assistance programs.

I know several agencies offer onsite daycare, but they fill up quick, so be sure to sign up early. CIA, Justice, Smithsonian and CFPB all have daycares in the building or closeby -- but I'm sure there are lots others too.

Where is the link to the survey? I want to see the three index questions. Thanks.

Thanks for the question -- if you go to the Best Places website (, you will get the three questions in the "About Best Places to Work" section.

One of the interesting elements of this survey is that they don't allow contractors who work directly alongside federal employees to participate. As a contractor with DHS, our input would not make a different, just likely widen the gap between DHS as the last place and the VA as the second to worst place to work.

What a terrific idea -- I would love to see a parallel effort to measure contractor views of agencies!

I entered the federal workforce to have a better family/work life balance. How important is this aspect to those who completed the survey, especially from those that came from the private sector where I feel this aspect is lacking for the sake of profit?

Work/life balance isn't one of the key drivers of employee satisfaction and commitment for the government workforce overall.  The leading drivers this year are leadership (by far the biggest), mission/skills match and pay.  Prior to 2010, work/life balance held the number 3 spot and pay has jumped up since then.  There still may be many employees for whom this is an important attribute of their work environment, but leadership and mission appear more critical for the bulk of the workforce.

I think work-life balance is a huge issue for federal workers and now for their managers. For example, telework is slowly taking hold in agencies and the Obama administration has made this a priority. There is less emphasis on having your "fanny in the seat" as it were and instead on getting your work done.. which could be from a Starbucks!

Have you considered adding questions that would allow you to further break down job satisfaction demographics? For example, I expect that professional-level federal employees (i.e., those with advanced degrees) have substantially less job satisfaction than non-professionals.

Great question. We actually do look at staff/manager alignment in the federal agencies and for the first time this year we are able to look at scores for the Senior Executive Service.

Typically, in any organization, managers and executives are more satisfied than frontline employees because they have more autonomy and tend to be more highly compensated.

Last year though we looked at staff manager alignment and put agencies on a grid to determine whether some agencies had difference that were dramtically higher or lower than other agencies. We will do that again this year -- so stayed tuned.

In the meantime, the SES have a satisfaction index score of 82.6 compared to that of 60.8 for all governmentment employees. We think this different is  pretty significant and will be digging into this issue even more over the weeks to come.


Can you share the three questions? Stilll confused.

Yes, the three questions from OPM's EVS that are used to create the overall index are:

1. I recommend my organization as a good place to work;

2. Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job;

3. Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization.

We use a proprietary, weighted formula -- it isn't a straight average. 

I hope this helps!

Telework Mandate across the federal government as an pptional benefit, to help those deemed ineligible arbitrarily. This would increase morale at the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the worst Agencies by several points.

Hi there.. Telework is definitely growing but has a lot way to go. Some jobs clearly need to be done from the office. But there are many that don't, and employees really are interested in more flexibility. One thing I'm curious to know is if people in the public and private sectors work more or less efficiently when they're at home!

Having just completed an OPM approved SES Candidate Development Program (which was excellent) I have gained new insight into why we're doing so badly. Many of the survey's questions relate directly to Leadership (or in our case, a general lack thereof). PArt of the probelm going forward will be attracting and retaining high quality candidates to senior leadership (SES) positions. In the current pay structure the hghest SES pay rate is just 19K/annum more than the top of the GS series. The bonuses paid to the SES have practically vanished in the last 5 years. Does the Gov't have any plans you know of to address this ?

This is a big issue for government. The Partnership has long advocated for executive pay to be decoupled from Congressional pay, and for Congress and agencies to fund their bonus pools. 

We believe it's critically important to reward people for a job well done - and while bonuses aren't the only way to do that, it's an important tool in the tool box.

Leadership is the key driver of employee satisfaction and commitment -- and it's a place where government is not performing highly according to employees.

Bottom line: You're right. I think our government needs to double down on training and developing leaders. VA has started an innovative program called Leading Edge (we support it a bit) - but it's early and there's lots to do.



One major reason for the low morale in my particular unit, which stems from spectacularly bad management from the highest levels (including no communication down the chain whatsoever), is the large number of political slots in this administration. In the previous administration, many more slots were career and now many of those are political and filled with people that most staff consider to be unqualified and not interested in doing work. Is there any data on conversions of positions from career to political across agencies?

That's fascinating and I'd love to hear more about this. I know the Partnership also is delving into this. Partnership gurus, are there more political appointees under Obama than under previous presidents?

My wife is a doctor at the VA and is about to leave for the private sector. While she enjoys the daily work with patients, after over a decade at the VA she's finally had enough of the crushing bureaucracy. I've always been a private sector guy so I can directly compare her experiences. And in a nutshell, she's had vastly more employment security but in return she's surrounded by people who should have been fired years ago.

I'm always sad to hear of good people leaving government service but sympathize with your comments.

Government separates less than 1 percent of employees involuntarily. Either it is super awesome at getting the hiring right or it isn't dealing particularly well with poor performers.

Fundamentally, I think it's about training and equipping managers to clearly articulate what is expected of employees and to hold them accountable for achieving those goals.


I didn't see a demographic breakdown for sexual orientation or gender identity (lesbian, gay, bi, and trans employees). Given the effects of the Defense of Marriage Act on denying benefits like health care to families and lack of uniform employment protections (though there have certainly been some improvements), I would think looking at those groups in future years would be helpful. Is it possible to get people to self identify in surveys, or is that not allowed for some reason?

For the first time, OPM did include a demographic question on LGBT, however, the data set was pretty small, so the Partnership doesn't have access to it for the rankings. I know they care about these issues, but because the sample is small, they are careful about preserving confidentiality.

I have the option to work remotely. What I've found it that a learning curve is necessary to develop the mindset of being 'at work' while physically not at work initially. Once I developed the habits and routines that keep me productive at the office I've found I concentrate better and are more productive at home. It took sometime to create that 'at work' atmosphere by building a defined workspace at home, i.e. not the couch. I'm fortunate that I only use that workspace when working from home so it has become my 'desk'.

We've looked at the issue of telework in the past and what we've found is not that people who telework are the most satisfied, but that people who have the option  to telework are the most satisfied.

Like you, I do think it's important to get to the office early in a person't tenure so they can build relationships and figure out the lay of the land, so to speak, but giving employees an option to telework can boost productivity and provide cost savings to government. We're all for it whenever it makes sense.

I see that when you look at the data by agency, you have a "rookie poll" of people who have been working at an agency for 3 years or fewer, and an "under 40" section. Was any of that broken down by age further? Did you notice any interesting trends regarding young people (say, in their 20's or so)in the government? Are they more satisfied, do they struggle more to get training or advance, etc.?

Young people (defined by us as younger than 30) with less than 3 years of experience are the most satisfied cohort in government. The honeymoon period tends to end, though, shortly after the third year of employment.

This isn't altogether uncommon - there's always a honeymoon period -- but in past analysis it seems to be a bit of a cliff they fall off. Agencies really need to pay attention to their younger cohort, view them as future leaders of government and provide them with clearly defined career paths - so we don't lose good talent!

Hi Folks,

Max and Lara will send their own good bye but I want to say that I enjoyed the chat and got some good story ideas. In fact, ANY of you should feel free to contact me at or 202-334-5190 to discuss your ideas for follow up stories I need to be doing.

Much appreciated.


Thank you so much for these questions. Sorry we couldn't get to them all, but we hope you'll spend some time on our website ( where you can view the complete rankings, analysis and demographic data.

The Partnership and Deloitte welcome your comments and suggestions and we hope you'll keep them coming!

Also as we sign-off, I can't help resist mentioning that these rankings are about employee engagement, and one way to reward your employees is to recognize their service. I hope you will take a moment to nominate an outstanding federal employee you know for a Service to America Medal at


In This Chat
Max Stier
Max Stier is the President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. He has worked previously in all three branches of the federal government. In 1982, he served on the personal staff of Congressman Jim Leach. Mr. Stier clerked for Chief Judge James Oakes of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1992 and clerked for Justice David Souter of the United States Supreme Court in 1994. Between these two positions, Mr. Stier served as Special Litigation Counsel to Assistant Attorney General Anne Bingaman at the Department of Justice. In 1995, Mr. Stier joined the law firm of Williams & Connolly where he practiced primarily in the area of white collar defense.
Lara Shane
Lara Shane is Vice President for Research and Communications at the Partnership for Public Service. Shane is responsible for the strategic direction and delivery of the Partnership's thought leadership and communication portfolio, and oversees the production of two of the Partnership's signature programs, Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings and the Service to America Medals. Prior to joining the Partnership, she served as Director of Public Education in the Department of Homeland Security. There she managed a variety of projects designed to educate the American public about the Department's mission, goals and various programs. Among the projects in Shane'™s portfolio was a national public education campaign, Ready, to inform and empower citizens about how to prepare for a terrorist attack or other emergency. Other projects included improving communication between government and media during a crisis.
Lisa Rein
Rein is a Washington Post reporter.
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