The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

Dec 18, 2013

Max Stier and Lara Shane discussed the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, which were released Wednesday.

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Hello! I'm Lara Shane, VP of Research and Communications. I'm excited to be here with Max and Josh to answer some of your questions today.

I've noticed that the Administration seems to promote managers who discriminate against particular groups with suspect classifications under the law at, at least one agency at the Department of Commerce. How did Commerce rank? While many employees at this agency with legitimate gripes have been terminated from this particular Commerce agency and their concerns have not been addressed, there seems to be an indifference as well as fear of retaliation in this one Commerce agency I'm thinking of in terms of really being honest about the nature of the problems.

Thanks for your question. Overall, Commerce ranked second out of the large federal agencies. It's a complicated tale though with uneven performance across subcomponents. The Patent and Trademark Office was the top-ranked subcomponent, but EDA was the absolute last subcomponent out of 300. It's an agency whose leadership I believe is going to look into what is happening below the surface!

I used to work for a federal agency that's near the bottom of the rankings (used to be absolute bottom - dragged itself up) and I can say that morale is a real problem and getting worse. Bad employees get promoted to GS-14 jobs where they can sit in an isolated office and do pretty much nothing while those who are contributing get stuck at GS-12 jobs (or in contract positions!). Everything becomes a union complaint or a lawsuit, to the point that everyone's on eggshells all the time. And the sense of mission that used to keep people motivated is becoming more and more muddled, without real clear guidance from the top. Not surprisingly, that agency is hemorrhaging talent to worse paid, less stable jobs outside the government. No question, just wanted to share.

I think you flag a good issue. One of the things we noticed in this year's findings is a significant difference on the views of members of SES and all other employees on the question - "Promotions in my work unit are based on merit." There is a 48 point difference on that question and something leadership needs to take a closer look at.

What differentiates the winners from the losers? I mean, why is NASA such a great place to work and DHS such a bad one? What should agencies be learning from the winners about how to make things better?

LEADERSHIP!  The most important factor that drives employee engagement is whether the senior leaders view their job as motivating and empowering their employees or not.  Charlie Bolden at NASA is a superlative leader who is focused on enabling his people to do better in a challenging environment.  He once said, "It is important to stay intouch with people at all levels and let them know my door is always open."

Do these surveys ever inspire action outside the agencies themselves, maybe in Congress? It would be hard to imagine that sequester cuts, budget battles and nomination holdups are not at least partly responsible for the drop in morale...

I think Congress could use these surveys to enact certain types of change, for instance with pay and performance awards, which proved to be a drag on the scores this time around. But agencies themselves have control over many of the issues covered in the survey, such as skills matching and communicating about objectives, etc. Not much Congress can do on that front. 

I recently retired from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCCD), better known to some as the David Taylor Model Basin, in W. Bethesda, MD. This used to be a good place to work. When the organization went from a Research Center to a Warfare Center, it was also put under the control of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). Things have been going downhill ever since. NAVSEA is an incredibly bureaucratic organization which doesn't seem to understand the engineering and science performed at NSWCCD. For many years, those of us in management were able to shield the working level folks from the bureaucracy, and they were able to do their satisfying work in science in engineering; ironically, as funding has gotten tight, the level of bureaucratic, non-value-added work has increased dramatically. In the past few years the bureaucratic burden has gotten so bad that it touches everyone, and not in a good way. Compound this with pay freezes and furloughs and morale is the worst that I have seen in almost 40 years; levels of frustration are very high. Younger employees and those of us of retirement age are leaving at an increasing rate. This is all very sad because this is an organization that does important work to support the fleet, and they are not only losing employees, but also are being hamstrung in their ability to perform their technical work. It is very sad and I wonder how much this is being repeated in other parts of the Navy and the government as a whole.

I don't think you are alone. While overall attrition in government is fairly low (around 6 percent) you do see retirements are up considerably since 2009 and that attrition is a bit higher among young employees. That's a problem for government because millenials only make up about 8 percent of the federal workforce -- as opposed to 30 percent of the broader labor market.

As you suggest, government is going to need to stabilize losses both at the experienced end of the spectrum and work harder to bring young talent in -- and make sure they have a positive work experience.

It seems to me that morale in DHS (and ICE in particular) will not improve until the managers who are opressing the workforce are fired due to the poor morale. What currently happens is this: the mangers who treat employee's poorly are then tasked with improving morale. . . these are managers clearly lack the skills necssary to succeed in that assignment. So, until senior officials are fired in response to these surveys, nothing will change.

You raise a lot of important issues.  Many managers in the federal government are not appropriately prepared for their responsibilities.  There is lots of blame to go around but we need to do a better job of selecting the right people for management positions and ensuring that there is a separate but equally valuable career track for subject matter experts, who aren't the right fit for management.  DOT and several other agencies have begun to build into the performance plans of managers (career and non-career) requirements that they effectively engage their employees.  I think this can help.

Hello Lara, Max, and Shane. Can you tell us about the types of opportunities managers in the Federal Government have to respond to survey results? Do they have options to make any substantive changes to improve the quality of worklife?

Great question. There are a variety of examples of things managers can do to respond to survey results. For example, digging deeper into data to gain more insights, gather employees to have actual discussions, conduct "stay interviews" to better understand what keeps people, walk the halls to say thank you and to listen.


Many agencies have also created committees to create a full plan of how they can listen to employee concerns and then address both short- and long-term issues that are raised.

Take a peek at our case studies report that we did with Deloitte -- Ten Years of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings for more about what agencies have done.

Any insight on what separates the "best" agencies from the "worst" - what are the good ones doing that the bad ones aren't?

We've done a report with Deloitte on six agencies that are doing great things in this arena called, "Ten Years in the BestPlaces to Work in the Federal Government Rankings," which you can find on our web site.  The Cliff Notes version is that it is all about leadership, empowering employees, giving them critical information and listening. 

Interested (although not that shocked) to hear that SES had a different response than other employees on the question of merit promotions. Are there other questions where you see a big difference between what the SES thinks of their agency and what the regular folks do?

In general, the SES have a much more positive view about their work environment as do line employees, which is something we'd see in the private sector as well.  What become troubling is when the difference is especially large and involves a failure by the SES to understand the world as it is seen by those that they manage.  Another area where this a big gap is around creativity and innovation and whether employees feel that their organizations and leadership support new and effective ways of doing work.

Is anyone surprised at these results when Feds have been treated like the abused pets in the late night ASCPA commercials? They have been furloughed. threatened with furloughs, suspended without pay for weeks, had contributions to their meager FERS drastically increased, and worst of all, for a group that priced itself as Civil Servants, vilified by self-serving Pols and biased pundits. My friends say I am well out.

Honestly, no I don't think the results are surprising given the furloughs, sequester and shutdown drama they've endured. Perhaps worse is all the uncertainty. Not being able to plan either for your professional goals or personal is extremely disruptive.

That said, there were agencies that managed to improve their scores in spite of these challenges and I think there are lessons to learn there.

I also hope Congress and other policymakers pay close attention to these numbers and take steps to allow government to be more effectively run. I hope the budget deal is a good start at stabilizing things.

Hello: For mid size agencies, the Smithsonian came in #2, with ZERO data points in your table, and GAO came in #3 with 1 of 10 data points in your rankings. How did you rank these agencies with no data or next to none? thank you.

The GAO and Smithsonian do their own surveys that include our three index questions and then they provide us with the results. They don't field the entire FEVS survey questions, so that's why we don't have category rankings for them.

They do have to meet certain criteria, such as be in the field during the same timeframe, have a certain response rate, and  have comparable employees (permanent federal).

PTO management really pushed employees to answer the survey and did lots of "rah rah!-ing" about it. Do all agencies do that? Could it have an influence on participation rates and scores?

Frankly, I think it is terrific that PTO is encouraging employees to respond to the survey, and there are other agencies that do the same thing and that didn't do so well this year.  Clearly participation rates can be influenced but the scores are not so easily impacted.  In the case of PTO, there was a concerted strategy to solicit employee perspectives to shape agency choices and that leads to good results.  You can learn more about the PTO story on our website and our report on how six federal agencies improved their employee satisfaction and commitment.

Keep in mind that the survey doesn't reflect the shutdown, since that would have happened after employees filled out their surveys. Agency reaction to that will be a factor in next year's survey. And I wouldn't be surprised if it has a big impact.

Agreed!  There is still time, however, for good leaders to work to turn things around.

Our division of this department has been scoring very poorly on recent surveys, and the trend was negative under this Administration. Not sure they know how to change the situation. It doesn't help at all when we are wrapping up the first quarter of the FY without completed performance evaluations or new performance plans for FY14.

This is a good example of how an agency's top leaders can use the survey to zero in on low-scoring divisions and find solutions. Hopefully that is happening or will happen at your agency. Since effective communication seems to be one of the keys to good scores, the first step could be to visit your unit and talk with managers and employees to find out why satisfaction is lagging there. 

The reason DHS ranks so low isn't because of absence of confirmed leadership- it's because of all the infighting. S1 has too many direct reports (22, I believe), so it sets up competition to destroy other parts of DHS in an effort to get resources/money. For example: FLETC competes against the very componets its supposed to serve as a trainer. And all the componets fight against each other at the budget/resources level. In addition, various Admin components (OCHCO, PA&E, USM, etc) deliberately try and undermine each other and issue conflicting guidance policy to that they rise in the constant relevance squabbles. Add to that a stupid amount of Congressional committees with oversight pulling in all directions and this mess is never getting fixed.

There's no question DHS is facing incredbile internal challenges and they have a lot of work to do there to begin making a difference. The Congressional oversight situation has been cited by most of the former leadership as unduely burdensome, but I really believe that sustained leadership attention can move the needle on these problems.

The first step is to try!

Dont know if it shows up by itself but it has to be the Department of Defense Central Adjudication Facility. Leadership is a bunch of 06 retired intel types who dont have a clue about leadership the GS 14 and 15s for the most part were selected to meet quotas. THere is no leadership here just number numbers numbers.

I don't think we have data for that subcomponent. Hopefully the CHCO at DOD got data from OPM that can be shared with the leadership there.

As a former fed, I know that participation in this survey is not always widespread among employees (our agency used to offer a pizza party to any office that could get above a certain % participation). Is that factored in at all to the rankings? Is there any sense of whether fuller participation would drag certain agencies down or boost them up?

We don't really know whether there is a response bias but there are agencies that do well and poorly with varying response rates.  The trend data that we have available also essentially addresses any real response bias concerns.  It is also worth noting that the response rate across of government is nearly 50%, which is pretty good.  I would love to see further research on this question.

Are there any unique characteristics of agencies that have risen notably in rankings during the recent years?

NASA's officials told me that agency has focused on mission buy-in and developing a strong leadership pipeline -- being serious and deliberate about identifying and training employees to become effective leaders. Effectively communicating objectives, engaging workers and recognizingn employees who do a good job also seem to be big factors with the most successful agencies, based on what I've heard from Max and others at the Partnership for Public Service. 

I didn't see any rankings for the CFPB? Am I just missing it or is there some other reason?

CFPB is not required to participate in the FEVS survey, so we don't have data for them. We would love to include them and hope they will work with us to be included next year.

So, if the answer to bad morale is good leadership (and I completely agree that it is!), how do the low ranked federal agencies start turning THAT around? Are they hiring the wrong people into leadership positions? Not training them effectively?

Both -- we need to do a better job in choosing and preparing our leaders.  My hope is that these rankings will help incentivize leaders to pay more attention to their responsibilities to their employees and provide an accountability metric.  We have over 4000 political appointees and many arrive with very little sense of how the federal government operates or of how important it is to effectively engage the career team.  By recognizing those leaders that succeed in creating high performing organizations, my hope is that we will get more of them.

I've worked both in the private sector (12 years) and the federal government (16 years). Frankly, I'm tired of people like the recent poster who complain and complain about how hard it is to be a fed. Believe me, it's not, even with this year's shutdown and the sequester. You have NO job security in the private sector, and benefits simply cannot compare to what we get in terms of the TSP, post-retirement payments for FEHB, and annuities. Most people I know in the private sector pay much more for their health insurance, don't have any pension, don't have employer contributions to their 401(k)'s, and can fired at will, with no or little legal protection. Federal workers should stop whining and realize how good we have it.

No doubt federal service has its benefits -- most notable of which is meaningful work and an opportunity to contribute to some amazing missions.

While most of the federal employees I have spoken to aren't happy with pay and some of the other issues, what really bothers them is the interruption of their work in serving the American people (during the shudown) and the lack of a budget that enables them to develop a strategy to get their work done.

I think the warning here is that this isn't just about satisfied employees -- it's about whether or not they think they are getting what they need to serve the American people.

Sorry you cant manage human beings! You can manage a budget, supplies etc but not human beings. Human beings require leadership. Problem in many govt agencies is they have no clue what leadership is. An MBA is no guarantee of leadership skills. Less than .1% of all lawyers can be leaders. Law and leadership do not go together. Problem with promoting a good leader is that this person threatens his/her superiors so they dont.

You point to a strong problem. The scores for effective leadership in government are quite low -- particularly when it comes to empowering employees and senior leaders.

Across government, much more leadership training and investment is needed.

Did you break down the results for State in any way - by bureau, for example? I would love to see how my bureau compares.

Unfortunately, subcomponent data for the State Department and some other agencies is not available to us. If you would like to see the FEVS results, I recommend getting in touch with your agency's Human Capital Office.

A lot of feds have a lot of really legitimate complaints about working for the government. Morale is low for a reason. But I'm wondering if it's worse, better or the same as their counterparts in the private sector? Is working for the government sometimes awful, but all work is sometimes awful, or is working for the government noticeably worse than not working for the government in a similar capacity?

The Best Places report compares government- and private-sector job satisfaction. The private sector scored considerably higher as a whole with an overall score of 70.7, compared to 57.8 for government. Granted, work is miserable sometimes no matter where people are employed, but the government seems to have more room for improvement. Taxpayers should be especially interested in how effectively the government is putting its workforce to use, and that's something that is measured in some ways through this survey. The lagging scores are not just a concern for feds who want a good work experience. It's also an effective-government issue. 

There's not much evidence of inflated job satisfaction results in this survey. But in organizations that complete surveys like this year after year, do you see evidence that employees respond with higher praise over time so that they can reduce the amount of time they spend during the next year participating in town halls, focus groups, and gimicky activities?

No, we don't really get a sense of that. If agencies truly pay attention to their findings and take action to drive change, most employees will embrace the chance to share their opinions and help make the organization better.

If townhalls and other public forums aren't to your taste, a lot agencies are using intranets or more private suggestion  mechanisms as well.

Where I work, the immediate-level management (directors and assistant directors) are excellent. Within the constraints their given, they do a great job of providing us resources, rewarding us, and letting us know what's going on. But those constraints, which are severe, are largely imposed by the political appointees and the entrenched civil service administrative folks. And the questions didn't seem to offer way to distinguish between the my managers and those above and to the side of them who cause all or most of the problems where I work. I was afraid that negative scores would be used to punish or replace the people I like, rather than address the issues I felt were most important. I ended up not resolving the worry in time, and didn't fill out the survey. Has this come up before? Can future surveys better distinguish between immediate management, upper management, and the administrative side of things?

Yes, that a great challenge. OPM defines managers, supervisors and senior leaders at the beginning of the survey. We've suggested they embed those definitions in the questions to make it clearer. We'll bring this up with them again.

You could send OPM a note too sharing your concern. The survey team there is really a crackerjack crew. They take our feedback and yours seriously.

What's the biggest/most effective change you've ever seen an agency make to address low morale after one of these surveys? How seriously do they actually take this?

I'd say the number one thing is improving communications. Most employees are highly dissatisfied with amount of information they get from their leadership - so when leaders make a concerted effort to communicate, we usually see results.

If I got to pick a second or third item  -- I'd say holding executives accountable for employee engagement and how well they build teams.

Another would be improving labor-managment relations.


Not really a question...morale is way below the 60%. Of 6 employees hired behind me one has left and 5 (myself included) are looking to leave. Work is mainly paper shuffling and management has refused suggestions for improvement because its funding/territory protection. Was told "don't fight the system. you'll be labelled a troublemaker." My skills aren't improving, there's no training dollars, there's no travel dollars (which was an essential part of our jobs). Since the pay freeze started my rent has increased, transit benefits by the agency are still at $125, health insurance increases... I've just completed a masters degree but the agency I'm now most qualified to assist isn't hiring. Managers won't approve details because they're scared we'll stay in the detail office and they won't be able to backfill, denying GS-14's the management experience we need to get 15's and into SES.

You bring up some good points, and I think this is one of those areas where perhaps Congress could help. Nearly all of the agencies I've spoken with have said they dramatically cut back on training because of the spending caps under the sequester. That can only hurt when it comes to developing new leaders and maximizing workers' skills and potential. At the same time, agencies themselves have to make some hard choices about how to use their limited resources, and perhaps some could prioritize training more instead of seeing that as an easy cut.  

Thank you for joining us today to talk about the Best Places to Work rankings, we appreciate your questions.

Thanks everyone for your great questions and interest. There's lots more analysis on and we issue stuff throughout the year, so please check back with us. 

A parting thought is the 88 percent of federal employees believe the work they do is important - and that's a good sign!

I have to run. Thanks for your questions and comments. It's been great chatting. Be sure to share more of your thoughts on the Federal Eye, where the Post is seeking more input, possibly for publication.

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, the 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. Prior to her time at the Department of Homeland Security, Shane worked at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and was an associate producer at CBS News.
Josh Hicks
Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler's Fact Checker column in 2011. Josh graduated from Albion College and Stanford. He also lived in New Zealand for eight months working as a commercial fisherman and fruit picker.
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