Employees at the Federal Election Commission have the lowest morale of any federal agency, registering a 2016 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government engagement score of only 28.4 out of 100.
The FEC, which administers the federal campaign finance laws, has experienced seven consecutive years of falling Best Places to Work engagement scores, which measure employee satisfaction and commitment with their jobs and workplace. This year, the FEC not only ranks last among small agencies, but its score is lower than every other department, agency and subcomponent across the government.
In addition, the FEC saw a decline in nine of 10 workplace categories, with a slight increase in how employees view the match between their skills and the agency mission. But the FEC’s score for effective leadership, a key element in driving employee engagement, was just 36.2 out of 100, a 5.1-point drop from 2015 and a 10.4-point decrease since 2014.
The FEC’s troubles were documented this past July in a report from the agency’s inspector general, who placed a good share of the blame on the agency’s six commissioners. The IG cited the commissioners for having a poor tone and attitude, making “too many disparaging public statements” and failing to value the work of FEC employees.
The report also pointed to a lack of employee trust in management; top leaders being seen as ineffective; and a sense that there is favoritism in rewards and promotions. The IG said employees feel that FEC leaders foster a culture of fear and retaliation, and that employees are provided with little information about the agency and issues affecting the workforce.
Moreover, the IG cited longstanding vacancies in key leadership positons, few career development opportunities, a failure by leaders to deal with chronic poor performers, and the lack of a diverse and inclusive culture. In a subsequent update in October, the IG said FEC had stabilized the leadership of its Office of Human Resources to help address some of the concerns raised by employees, but found that the major issues cited this past summer still stand.
On Nov. 30, 2016, the FEC responded to the IG with a statement saying that it is now formulating plans to address the issues raised in the recent reports.
The statement said it is “management’s intention to find collaborative solutions to improve morale at the FEC and to identify concrete steps that can be taken to better the work environment.” The statement said the agency is working on a plan to improve communication and receive feedback from employees, and “has begun conversations with senior leaders and direct reports to the staff director about efforts to build trust.”
The statement also said the management has “taken steps to consider morale issues in the Labor Management Forum with representatives of the National Treasury Employees Union,” adding that the commission’s leadership understands that “employee morale is essential to fulfilling our mission responsibilities.”
In 2016, several Department of Homeland Security immigration agencies registered increases in their Best Places to Work in the Federal Government scores, reflecting improvements in how the employees of these organizations view their jobs and workplaces.
In particular, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees lawful immigration to the United States, has a 2016 Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 70.7 out of 100. This represents a 4.5-point increase from 2015 and a 7-point jump since 2014. USCIS also improved in nine of 10 workplace categories, with the one decrease of 1.5 points coming on the issue of pay, while the views of employees regarding their leadership jumped 4.3 points.
Customs and Border Protection, another DHS agency, has a 2016 Best Places to Work score of 46.8, a 6.3-point improvement after five consecutive years of decline. Employees gave higher marks to the agency in all 10 workplace categories than in 2015, including 4.4-point increases for leadership, and for training and development opportunities. CBP’s primary mission is preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the U.S., and it is also charged with regulating international trade, stemming the flow of illegal drugs and collecting import duties.
USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez said his agency has placed an emphasis on leadership training with a program called 12x12, where supervisors are required to obtain 12 hours of training and to teach another 12 hours for employees. Rodriguez said this program has helped “create a culture of learning” among supervisors that permeates throughout the agency.
USCIS also has demonstrated an interest in empowering employees going forward. In May, the agency started actively soliciting employee feedback by using pulse polls, an internal polling system that collects feedback about employee concerns and perspectives. They also have employed a web-based portal called USCIS Innovation that allows for online peer interaction and voting regarding workplace issues that employees would like to resolve.
Rodriguez said responses from these two initiatives have been used to improve how employees do their jobs, adding that responding to the concerns raised has been a critical factor in improving employee engagement.
CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said he has implemented leadership development programs for GS-15 employees and other supervisors, and made training a prerequisite for promotion. Additionally, he said a mentoring program has been instituted for employees.
Town hall meetings in field offices also have been used as an employee engagement improvement mechanism by CBP and USCIS, helping leadership build credibility with employees, according to CBP’s Kerlikowske and USCIS’s Rodriguez.
At one CBP town hall, Kerlikowske said an employee suggested there was a need for more counseling services. He said the agency followed up by expanding these services, resulting in an increase in the number of visits by employees seeking help.
“This showed people that they are being heard and that their suggestions are taken seriously and are actionable,” said Kerlikowske.
He also emphasized the importance of recognizing employees for their good work, noting that CBP leaders make eight to 10 calls a week to congratulate employees for outstanding accomplishments. In one instance, he said, a group of employees detected faulty batteries used in the popular hover board toys that could catch fire, and is confident that “lives were saved as a result of the good work of CBP employees.”
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has made improving DHS employee engagement a priority. Although still ranking last among large federal agencies, DHS as a whole improved its 2015 score by 2.7 points, its first increase since 2010.
The Department of Agriculture is the 2016 most improved Best Places to Work in the Federal Government large agency, registering an employee engagement score of 63.1 out of 100. The score represents a 3.7-point increase from 2015 and a 7-point jump since 2013.
This year also marks the first time that USDA has been among the top 10 agencies in the Best Places to Work rankings, moving from 16th place in 2013 to a tie for ninth place today. USDA’s strategic plan includes a specific goal that the agency will rank in the Best Places to Work top 10 by 2018, an achievement that has been accomplished ahead of schedule.
The department also notably showed improvement in all 10 workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, with the largest increase of 3.3 points since 2015 coming in the category of effective leadership.
The steady advances reflect Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Cultural Transformation Initiative, which has focused on developing new strategies to improve employee engagement, empower employee voices and recognize high-performers and best practices.
To help achieve these goals, USDA hired a program manager for employee engagement who focuses exclusively on assisting agencies and staff offices with improving the job satisfaction and work life of employees. “We thought [improving employee engagement] was something that required someone’s full time and attention,” said Assistant Secretary Gregory Parham.
Chief Human Capital Officer Roberta Jeanquart said the creation of the position to support USDA subcomponents has resulted in a new level of accountability, with agencies now reporting monthly to the Employee Engagement Office on their progress with their individual action plans.
A key to improving employee engagement, according to Parham, has been giving employees a platform to express their views and then demonstrating that leadership is paying attention.
As part of this effort, USDA established Employee Advisory Councils where employees interact with and provide direct input to their leaders.
Jeanquart said, “Employees let us know that work-life balance is important to them,” resulting in an effort across the department to improve employee participation rates in telework and flexible work schedules.
“We trained our leaders to understand the value of telework and flexible schedules, and helped them understand how to manage in this environment so that these programs are used to promote high performance,” said Jeanquart. “Last year alone, participation in telework increased by 6 percent, with 41 percent of eligible employees regularly teleworking. Additionally, 86 percent of our eligible employees are on a flexible work schedule.”
Jeanquart also said, employees requested creation of a mentoring program, resulting in the launch of an online USDA-wide mentoring portal and the establishment of mentoring programs in all of USDA’s subcomponents.
“To demonstrate a commitment to mentoring, we asked leaders to serve as mentors to help us build the leadership pipeline,” said Jeanquart. “Last year, 51 percent of our senior executives were serving as mentors.”
In another instance, employees expressed interest in having individual development plans that would represent a commitment from leaders to focus on their growth and development.
“Only about 30 percent of employees had these development plans at the time, but we responded by implementing a policy that requires that eligible employees have a development plan annually,” said Jeanquart. “Last year, over 85 percent of eligible employees had these plans.”
In addition to these efforts, Parham and other leaders have visited field offices across the country and hosted town halls to solicit feedback and answer questions directly from employees. He said the department has recognized employees for their good work, highlighted best practices from high-scoring agencies in the Best Places to Work rankings and profiled employee achievements in My USDA, a monthly newsletter.
Parham said improving employee engagement is a continuous effort and requires demonstrating respect for USDA employees and the work that they do.
“Every year, we said we want people to let us know what they’re thinking. We told employees that we really do want to hear from them and they can expect to see some changes,” said Parham. “We want people to know we want to invest in them.”
The Department of Health and Human Services moved from seventh place in 2015 to fifth in the 2016 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, increasing its employee engagement score by 2.5 points to 66.4 out of 100.
The department’s improvements in how employees feel about their jobs and workplaces is reflected in the scores of a number of HHS subcomponents. These include the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (up 2 points for a score of 72.9); the Food and Drug Administration (up 4.1 points for a score of 70.4); the Health Resources and Services Administration (up 5 points for a score of 68.1); and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (up 1.7 points for a score of 65.9).
The department as a whole registered increases in all of the 10 workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, with its highest score coming in the match between employee skills and agency mission.
The rise in employee engagement comes as HHS has faced numerous challenges, from the Ebola and Zika public health threats to managing the Affordable Care Act and dealing with pressure to approve new drugs.
“Because of our mission and public health focus, significant challenges like Zika and Ebola actually help to energize our passionate workforce,” explained Christine Major, the department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for administration.
Major said agency leaders are committed to improving employee engagement, with Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell regularly hosting town hall meetings and brownbag lunches to give employees a place to discuss their experiences and relevant agency issues, and to express their concerns.
“The secretary is very transparent and committed to strong communication. She has a really great way of connecting the dots so that everyone across the agency feels more interconnected,” said Major.
James Egbert, a HHS human capital strategist, said employee training has played an important role in the department’s engagement strategy. He said HHS has added several supervisor training and employee courses on topics such as holding constructive performance conversations and improving office culture.
One training program, he said, helps employees to develop greater self-awareness of their role in how they experience their work environment. “In this module, the focus is on each participant outlining a positive oriented work experience redesign development plan that aligns their own individual talents and career interests to work priorities that support team and mission needs,” said Egbert. “There is even a communications section in the plan to aid employees in opening effective ongoing performance conversations with their supervisor to enact the plan,” Egbert said.
At the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, there has been a major effort to boost internal communications with frequent newsletters and emails highlighting agency activities and accomplishment as well as the work of individuals and teams. There also have been regular employee lunches and open-door sessions with the director as well as “all-hands meetings” to inform the staff about AHRQ activities and decisions, and to listen to issues raised by employees and get their feedback.
“The thinking is that when employees feel empowered with information they need, work in an environment where communication is timely and relevant, and are part of the decision-making process, it will translate to improved employee engagement within the organization,” said Alison Reinheimer of the AHRQ.
A SharePoint site also has been created at HRSA where supervisors recognize staff members and employees recognize their peers by writing narratives about noteworthy accomplishments. When employees are recognized, they automatically receive emails with a link to the site.
“This encourages employees to think about things that their peers should be recognized for and generally promotes positivity and engagement throughout the organization,” said Tim George of the HRSA.
In one instance, an HRSA employee was cited for calmly handling calls from frustrated and sometimes irate customers, identifying solutions and solving problems with articulate instructions and professionalism.
The employee who was recognized responded, “Thank you for the recognition. The timing couldn’t have been better. Some days you wonder if you’re making a difference when dealing with all the issues from day to day. This goes a long way to recharge my batteries. I feel a second wind coming on.”
Major said HHS is “a really big, diverse organization,” with the individual agencies focused on their own missions and working on different approaches to employee engagement. But she said the tone has been set from the top about the importance of good communication and an environment in which “employees feel their work is valued.”
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, are two Department of Health and Human Services agencies devoted to strengthening the quality of public health.
But the similarity between the two agencies diverges when it comes to how employees view their jobs and workplaces.CMS has a 2016 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® employee engagement score of 70.4 out of 100, a 1.6 point increase from 2015. It ranks 73rd out of 305 agency subcomponents government-wide.
In contrast, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration employee engagement score is just 41.1—29.3 points lower than CMS—but did see a 3.4-point increase from 2015. SAMHSA ranks 302 among all agency subcomponents.
The Best Places to Work rankings measure federal employee engagement through the lens of worker satisfaction and commitment, with the underlying theory being that increased employee engagement leads to better performance and outcomes for the American people. In addition, the rankings provide employee perspectives on leadership, pay, innovation, work–life balance and a host of other issues.
Both CMS and SAMHSA did well when it comes to the match between employee skills and the mission, with CMS registering a 77.5 score compared to 70.5 for SAMHSA. Employee satisfaction with pay is also comparable, with CMS receiving a score of 69.3 compared to SAMHSA’s score of 64.3 But in other categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, SAMHSA lags its sister agency on employee engagement.
This includes differences of 18.6 points between the two agencies on opportunities for performance-based rewards and advancement, 14.4 points on how well the agencies encourage and foster innovation and 13.2 points on work-life balance.
Lis Handley, chief human capital officer at CMS, said that employee engagement is “driven from the top,” and all employees—from senior leaders to rank and file—should know that engagement is an agency priority.
When staff recently indicated that internal communication could be better, CMS revamped a monthly publication geared toward highlighting agency news and created “The Administrator’s Corner” on its website—a forum for the head of CMS to interact with staff.CMS senior leadership also has focused on improving scores on three specific Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey questions: “My talents are used well in the workplace;” “In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce;” and “My organization’s senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.”
To improve scores, CMS launched an interagency rotational program to develop staff, made career development coaching available to employees and provided first line managers with the opportunity to get coaching on the job.
Handley explained that agency leadership genuinely wants to hear from employees, evidenced by a recent campaign to increase staff participation in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The campaign, complete with a promotional mascot named ElViS the Elephant, helped increase staff participation in the employee viewpoint survey from 61 percent in 2010 to 69 percent in 2016.
CMS also has made an effort to recognize and thank staff for their good work. Employee recognition initiatives include “A Day in the Life,” a program that provides those with leadership potential with the opportunity to shadow the agency’s administrator or senior leaders. Units also are encouraged to submit the names and accomplishments of employees, with a number receiving a personal thank-you email or phone call from the administrator.
As Handley explained, the CMS “Thank You” program is driven by the recognition that “staff are the engine that really fuels the delivery of our mission.”
Michael Etzinger, Executive Officer at SAMHSA and the director of the Office of Management, Technology and Operations, acknowledged the agency’s low Best Places to Work score. He emphasized that leadership takes employee engagement seriously and said that a handful of initiatives aimed at improving agency culture and the workplace environment are currently underway.
Etzinger explained that environmental factors hampered employee engagement in 2015 and 2016, including an office move from a large government facility to a nice, but smaller and less private space. The challenge of SAMHSA’s expanding workload and comparatively small budget and workforce also has put strain on employee engagement, he said.
SAMHSA recently surveyed its employees and found that many believed career training and development opportunities should be strengthened. To that end, SAMHSA implemented “Series of 6,” which requires each manager to take at least six trainings a year. SAMHSA also offers the SAMHSA Professional Success Series to all of its employees. These courses concentrate on communication and collaboration, getting the most out of change, project planning and leading without formal authority.
Employees also are asked to submit individual development plans and are encouraged to be ambitious. Not just a “pencil whipping exercise,” Etzinger has challenged supervisors to make development plans a priority and invest time in talking through their employees’ goals and how to achieve them.
Etzinger is hopeful that a renewed focus on career development and training opportunities for staff will boost employee engagement at SAMHSA.
The Department of the Interior is home to many agencies charged with natural resource management and environmental stewardship. For a variety of reasons, some of these agencies have fostered heathy workplace cultures and strong employee engagement while others have struggled.
The National Park Service, for example, increased its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® employee engagement score by 0.7 points to 53.8 out of 100 in 2016, but still ranks just 262 out of 305 agency subcomponents across the government. The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement doesn’t fare much better, with an employee engagement score of 55.8 and a ranking of 240 out of 305 subcomponents.
Other Interior subcomponents have done much better. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, with an employee engagement score of 67.6, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with a score of 68.0, each exceeded the government-wide score of 59.4 in 2016. So did U.S. Geological Survey, with a Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 70.1 in 2016—a 2.5 point increase over 2015 and the top ranking Interior agency.
The Best Places to Work data provide a window into how federal public servants view their jobs and workplaces. The scores measure federal employee engagement through the lens of worker satisfaction and commitment, with the underlying theory being that increased employee engagement leads to better performance and outcomes for the American people.
At USGS, Peggy Gardiner, Organizational Development Program Manager at USGS, emphasized the importance of frequent and timely communication in maintaining robust employee engagement during normal times and particularly in times of uncertainty.
As Gardiner explained, “USGS has been resilient during previous presidential transitions and we aim to continue that resiliency this time around.”
To that end, the Acting Director William Werkheiser recently started “Breakfast with Bill” where he eats breakfast in the cafeteria and encourages employees to join him, share their concerns and ask him questions. In the same spirit of fostering transparency and accessibility, the acting director convenes town hall meetings and participates in fireside chats with employees.
USGS also has placed a strong emphasis on the role of leadership development and its employees enthusiastically seek out opportunities to learn and advance their careers. Some sign up for Leadership 101, a course that emphasizes strengthening culture, building high-performing teams and receiving feedback from others using a 360 assessment.
During the USGS Supervisory Challenge, a course for new supervisors, instructors print federal employee survey questions with USGS’ scores on poster board and require participants to discuss their strategies for improving the agency’s numbers on a variety of different workplace issues. This course also includes sessions on developing, engaging and rewarding employees.
USGS’s size and employee distribution can sometimes complicate efforts to strengthen employee engagement. As USGS Organizational Development Specialist Aimee Cooper noted, the organization has roughly 8,400 employees dispersed over 350 locations. This fact coupled with a bottom-up culture makes it challenging to design and implement employee engagement initiatives on a wide scale, Cooper explained. Nonetheless, she said, it gives freedom for organizations to implement customized employee engagement strategies at the local level.
Along with good leadership, USGS credits a well-defined mission and role-clarity with enabling it to overcome the drawbacks of a geographically dispersed workforce. “Our mission is clear, and it’s who we are and what we do. There is an attachment to it, and everyone understands how their role contributes to its fulfillment,” said Ashley Cannady, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey program analyst at USGS.