The departments of Justice and State each experienced a decline in employee engagement in 2017, a year when worker satisfaction with their jobs and agencies was on the upswing across the federal government.
The Department of State dropped from fourth place in 2016 to eighth among 18 large agencies in the 2017 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, registering an employee engagement score of 64.0 out of 100. This represents a 2.8-point decline from 2016 and the first time that the department has not been ranked in the top five large agencies since 2011.
The Department of Justice fell from sixth place in 2016 to 11th among large agencies, with an employee engagement score of 63.7, a 2.0-point drop. This is the first time DOJ has not been among the top 10 large agencies since 2011.
The decline at both departments came as 73.8 percent of all federal organizations improved their Best Places to Work employee engagement scores, including 13 of the 18 large agencies.
Officials at both departments declined to comment on the possible reasons for the lower scores or whether they have plans to address employee issues identified in the Best Places to Work data.
Both departments experienced some turmoil with the change in administration, possibly affecting employee attitudes when they responded to the federal survey on which the Best Places to Work rankings are based.
President Trump, for example, openly criticized the Justice Department during his first months in office for its handling of a proposed immigrant travel ban, fired FBI Director James Comey and acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and publicly expressed displeasure with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
At the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson actively worked to reorganize and downsize the department during his first months in office, and supported major budget reductions. The department’s entire senior level management team resigned early in 2017, and there were a number of other high-profile departures of experienced diplomats who publicly expressed displeasure with the direction of the new administration’s foreign policy and Tillerson’s management.
Among the workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, employees downgraded the State Department’s senior leaders by 9.2 points for a score of 42.9 points out of 100. This decline marks the steepest drop in the senior leadership category among large agencies, and State’s lowest score on this issue since 2003 when the rankings first began.
At the Justice Department, the Best Places to Work score for senior leaders dropped 1.3-points to 48.4, while the score for strategic management fell 1.4 points to 54.5.
The department’s decline in employee engagement also is reflected in the scores of a number of subcomponents. The FBI’s Best Places to Work score decreased by 2.1 points to 66.6, while the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees the country’s 58 immigration courts, had an 8.0 point decline to 49.1 points. The Civil Rights Division dropped 6.6 points to 62.7, the Environment and Natural Resources Division fell by 5.2 points to 80.7 and the Bureau of Prisons declined by 5.1 points to 55.0.
On a positive note, the department’s Office of the Inspector General’s score rose 6.8 points to 77.7, while the Antitrust Division improved by 5.1 points to 68.3 and the Drug Enforcement Administration increased by 3.9 points to 72.6.
The Environmental Protection Agency dropped one spot in the 2017 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, falling to 18th place among 25 midsize agencies.
EPA’s Best Places to Work score, which measures employee engagement, shed 0.9 points in 2017 and stands at 63.5 out of 100. The decline comes after two years of improvement and in a year when the government-wide score increased by 2.1 points.
Among EPA subcomponents leading the decline were the Office of Air and Radiation (down 7.3 points in 2017 for a score of 60.3 out of 100), the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (down 5.5 points for a score of 54.8) and the Office of Water (down 5.4 points for a score of 54.5). The Office of the Administrator registered its all-time low score of 46.5, down more than 20 points during the last five years.
EPA’s drop occurred during a particularly high-profile time for the agency. President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has argued that the agency’s regulatory agenda should be significantly scaled back.
Moreover, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, on which the Best Places to Work rankings are based, was in the field when the president released a budget that proposed cutting the EPA’s funding by more than 30 percent. EPA employees in several major cities held public protests over the proposed reductions and policy changes, and during this same timeframe, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
While EPA’s Best Places to Work score dipped in 2017, the agency has in recent years put into place a number of initiatives aimed at improving the employee experience. For example, an EPA official cited the Employee Engagement Community of Practice, operated out of the Office of Human Resources, which “serves as a forum for employees to share success stories, candidly discuss failures in a safe space and chart a path forward.” The official went on to say that, “Overall, EPA’s employees continue to focus on the important work and mission of the agency.”
In addition to the Community of Practice, some work units have used pulse surveys to track what is top-of-mind in the workforce, while others have mandated the creation of plans to strengthen the employee experience. Around the time the federal employee survey is scheduled to be taken, the EPA has produced videos and digital signage, included articles in employee newsletters and hosted ceremonies intended to raise awareness about the survey and encourage employees to complete it.
Convincing employees that leadership takes their feedback seriously is an area where the federal government struggles, but it is crucial to an employee engagement strategy.
The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission made a commitment five years ago to confront steadily declining employee job satisfaction at the agency, and that sustained effort has paid big dividends.
In 2017, the SEC’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement score rose to 80.9 out of 100, a 4.8-point jump from 2016 and a 24.9-point increase from 2012. The SEC also rose from 19th place in 2012 to 5th among midsize agencies in the rankings.
All of SEC’s subcomponents included in the 2017 rankings saw improvements in their employee engagement scores. In addition, the SEC showed increases in all 10 of the workplace categories, including a 5.6-point jump regarding how employees view agency leaders.
This steady across-the-board improvement is the result of a decision made by the SEC leadership, in cooperation with the staff and the National Treasury Employees Union, to focus on improving how workers feel about their jobs and workplaces after five consecutive years of plummeting Best Places to Work scores.
Lacey Dingman, the SEC’s chief human capital officer, said the sustained commitment from management in cooperation with the employees has been critical to the turnaround.
“Our experience shows that any change of this magnitude cannot begin, nor succeed, without significant buy-in at the top and without significant involvement and constructive engagement from rank-and-file staff and their representatives,” said Dingman.
As a result of numerous meetings with senior managers, listening sessions with frontline employee teams, focus groups and employee suggestions, Dingman said the agency chose to focus on improving communication across the agency and up-and-down the management chain; greater recognition of employee contributions to the mission; and better leadership development and employee training opportunities.
In 2013, agency management and the NTEU partnered to create small labor management groups within each division and office where managers and employees work together on issues that are important to them. Dingman said these forums have served as a safe place where managers and employees can collectively identify workplace issues that need to be addressed.
Dingman said senior leaders meet with employees to get input, provide answers, let them know their views are important, reward outstanding performance, and when needed, take action to overcome deficiencies.
For example, Jay Clayton, the current SEC chairman, invited all of the military veterans at the SEC for breakfast in 2017, took pictures with them and listened to their concerns. Dingman said former Chairwoman Mary Jo White launched an “All Invested” initiative in 2014 to improve communication between the leadership and employees, build a greater sense of mission and show their work is valued. The initiative included town hall meetings where employees could hear about the plans for the agency and ask questions.
In 2017, about 80 percent of the SEC’s 4,500 employees took the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey on which the Best Places to Work rankings are based. This compares to a government-wide response rate of just 45.5 percent. “We’re proud of our response rate. It means that employees believe that their feedback will be listened to and acted upon,” said Dingman.
To improve transparency and accountability, the agency also created an online dashboard for employees to examine the entire agency’s survey results. This dashboard not only helps divisions and offices within the SEC identify areas that need improvement, but it serves to hold the agency accountable for the engagement scores.
Throughout 2018, Dingman said managers will hold meetings to assess the federal survey and Best Places to Work data, and they will develop plans to further address employee concerns and opportunities identified in the reports. Part of the plan for 2018, she said, will involve additional leadership development training opportunities.
Dingman said the SEC views improving employee engagement as a continuous process, not a one-time event. “This is a marathon,” she said. “For us, this has been a five year effort and we will put in another five year effort to ensure that our employees want to work here.”
The Department of Transportation, once at the bottom of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, climbed to fourth place in 2017 among large federal agencies.
The department registered a 2017 Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 67.6 out of 100, a 4.2-point increase from 2016 when it was in eighth place, and a 15.4-point improvement from 2009 when it ranked last among large agencies.
Several DOT subcomponents showed significant improvements in their employee engagement scores in 2017, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (+10.2 points), the Federal Railroad Administration (+9.9 points), the Federal Transit Administration (+6.7 points) and the Federal Aviation Administration (+4.7 points).
In addition, the department improved in all 10 workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, with the highest score of 79.4 points out of 100 coming in the match between employee skills and the department’s mission.
The boost in employee engagement reflects a sustained departmental effort to communicate with the workforce, to address concerns, to recognize good work and to focus on leadership development and training.
The department, for example, offers executive coaching programs for career and non-career senior executives and this past year partnered with American University for a one day offsite session for approximately 75 career agency senior leaders that focused on ways to enhance competencies and improve employee engagement.
Keith Washington, DOT’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration, said the department’s senior leadership has been focused on recognizing the importance of a healthy work environment. “We have a seasoned Secretary who knows the department, understands employee engagement and takes it seriously,” said Washington.
One major area of focus has been the soliciting of feedback from employees on workplace issues and addressing these concerns. In 2010, the department launched an internal online community called Idea Hub, where employees share ideas and collaborate with one another on ways to improve the workplace. The department has implemented several ideas raised on Idea Hub, including opening a health clinic for employees and reducing the number of passwords required for the department’s systems. DOT has received thousands of ideas from employees and implemented over 70 of the most significant, resulting in improved processes and greater efficiencies.
In 2018, the department plans to launch a mentoring program, an idea that grew out of a request from an employee during an all-staff meeting. The mentoring program will link senior employees with lower level employees based on their skills, interests and needs.
In addition to these efforts, DOT has worked to create a culture of recognition. The department, for example, holds an annual awards ceremony to honor employees who have done outstanding work. During Administrative Professionals Week, 15 exemplary employees were selected and recognized by Secretary Chao in 2017.
Washington said one of the biggest challenges is that the various subcomponents within the department have different cultures and workplace issues. He said the department has organized work groups and councils comprised of employees from different subcomponents to bring people together to discuss concerns and opportunities for change, and recently relaunched a rotational assignment program that enables employees to build relationships and learn best practices from across the department.
Washington said maintaining employee satisfaction with their jobs and workplace is an ongoing process that requires commitment from the top down. “The most important thing is to stay vigilant and not get complacent,” he said.