The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) maintained its position as the top large agency in the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings. At a time when employee satisfaction and commitment dropped at a majority of agencies, NASA built on its already strong record by raising its score from 72.8 points out of 100 in 2012 to 74 in 2013.
NASA, which has the mission of pioneering the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research, also is the highest ranked large agency in all 10 workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings except for work–life balance and satisfaction with pay. The agency continued a steady upward trend in the category of effective leadership, a key driver of overall employee satisfaction.
NASA’s Best Places to Work score has risen every year since 2007. According to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, “The combination of employee engagement and intentional management of workforce culture is so compelling it overcomes even the most difficult management challenges.”
Chief human capital officer Jeri Buchholz attributed NASA’s success to the agency’s extensive focus on three key priority areas: connecting people to each other and the mission; building model supervisors; and recognizing and rewarding innovative performance.
“Where we really focus our attention, we see measurable improvement,” she said.
In the area of connecting people to each other and the mission, NASA recently implemented a “reverse mentoring” program where junior employees mentor more senior staff on a particular topic. For example, one employee mentored a deputy center director on how to effectively use social media.
This program carries with it a variety of benefits, such as improved networking and personal connections among staff, and increased exposure to new fields and topics. Buchholz described the program as a “universally rewarding experience that costs nothing and demonstrates that senior leadership is committed to understanding what people do every day.”
According to Bolden, NASA’s efforts to build model supervisors include shifting the weighting on all Senior Executive Service (SES) performance plans to emphasize management accomplishments such as “leading people, building coalitions, and diversity and inclusion,” as opposed to emphasizing more technical or scientific accomplishments. He said this emphasis communicates the importance NASA places on developing strong management and supervisory skills in its senior leaders.
According to Buchholz, a major goal at NASA is to “infuse a spirit of innovation in everything we do.” NASA developed an internal culture strategy based on the idea that “if people believe they are working in an innovative environment, they will be innovative,” said Buchholz. NASA leaders carefully monitor their scores on the Partnership for Public Service’s innovation index to track and strengthen their employees’ perceptions on innovation in the workplace.
Accurate and timely workforce communication also has been critical to strengthening employee satisfaction at NASA, according to Buchholz.
The agency uses a communications tool called the Human Resources Messaging System to provide staff with tailored and specific communications. The system targets messages to specific employee subsets, such as all supervisors or all staff based in California, so employees know the messages they receive are carefully directed and relevant. Messages also avoid government jargon and are written in an easy-to-read style. The system allows employees to provide feedback for each message, helping to ensure the communication is useful and relevant.
According to Buchholz, timely and accurate communication was especially important during the stress and uncertainty of the recent government shutdown.When communication with employees about applying for unemployment insurance was designated an “excepted activity” during the shutdown, NASA sent text messages via an emergency notification system alerting staff that they were allowed to check their work emails for important information about unemployment insurance. After the shutdown ended, Buchholz reported receiving many thank-you notes from employees grateful to have received accurate and timely updates.
In a year when the majority of agencies experienced a decline in their overall Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® job and workplace satisfaction scores, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) improved from 18th to 13th place out of the 19 large agencies in the rankings.
The VA, which is responsible for administering health care, pensions, benefits and employment programs for veterans and their families, registered a slight increase of 0.6 in its overall Best Places to Work score, rising to 57.3 points out of 100 and reversing a steep drop in 2012. The VA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were the only two of 19 large federal agencies that increased their Best Places to Work scores in 2013.
The VA made gains in several of the key Best Places to Work categories, including effective leadership and strategic management.
Gina Farrisee, assistant secretary for human resources and administration, attributed the VA’s rise in the rankings to increased use and visibility of programs like MyCareer@VA, a Web portal that connects employees with career-enhancing learning, training and developmental experiences associated with mission-critical occupations.
Farrisee said MyCareer@VA “leads employees to programs, activities and skills that improve their overall work experience.” She said the VA also continued to invest in other workforce training and development activities in 2013, especially virtual training.
Scores around work–life balance at the VA also rose in 2013, which Farrisee attributed partially to the department’s increased promotion of workplace flexibilities such as telework.
VA chief of staff Jose Riojas said the department also has undertaken an extensive leadership effort to strengthen and develop a core values system based on the themes of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence (I.C.A.R.E.). He said these values have been integrated into VA’s new employee orientation program and are included in leadership development and training programs.
Riojas added that the process of establishing the core values and integrating them throughout VA’s work has helped increase employee satisfaction by strengthening the connections between the day-to-day activities of the employees and the overall mission and goals of the agency.“If we abide by these values, the thought is that we will end up with a healthy organization geared toward serving veterans as well as possible,” said Riojas.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the most improved mid-size agency in the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, moving from 10th of 22 agencies to 7th place out of 23.
The FCC, which regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, has a Best Places to Work job and workplace satisfaction and commitment score of 71.3 out of 100, an increase of 4.6 points since last year.
In addition to increasing its overall score, the FCC improved employee satisfaction in seven of the 10 separate workplace categories that were measured.
The biggest gain was a 4.7-point increase in strategic management, which measures the extent to which employees believe management ensures they have the necessary skills and abilities to do their jobs. The FCC also jumped 3.8 points in its effective leadership score, which measures the extent to which employees believe leadership generates motivation and commitment, encourages integrity and manages people fairly.
Tom Green, the acting chief human capital officer, said the agency carefully studied the federal survey used to compile the Best Places to Work rankings, and decided to place an emphasis on finding ways for management to better communicate with its more than 1,700 employees.
Green said the emphasis on communications included emails from the chairman and town hall meetings in various bureaus to highlight what the commission is doing, the importance of the mission and the valuable role played by employees.
During performance reviews, Green said, managers also have talked about the importance of the work and the employee’s contribution.
“We have been trying to emphasize to employees how their work relates to mission and goals and priorities of commission,” said Green. “We want to connect management to the workforce and let them know their work is valued.”
Green said town hall meetings were held to discuss the possibility of unpaid furloughs due to the across-the-board budget cuts imposed by Congress, and to assure everyone that management was doing everything possible to prevent them. In the end, the FCC did not have to furlough employees, Green said.
In addition, Green said the FCC used a web-based comment site to enhance workplace engagement—a forum where employees can post and discuss ideas, raise issues and get a response from management.
“Our goal has been to increase management outreach to the employees, to talk about what we are doing as an agency and how we have been successful,” said Green.
The U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) was the most improved small agency in the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, making critical gains in employee job satisfaction despite the challenging environment facing federal agencies.
USITC increased its Best Places to Work score by 9.3 points to 69.3 out of 100, and improved its ranking from 22nd to 9th out of 29 small agencies.
The trade agency registered an 11.5-point gain, the largest among small agencies, in the area of strategic management, which measures employees’ perceptions of whether staff have the knowledge and skills they need to accomplish the agency’s goals. The USITC also increased its score on effective leadership, a primary driver of employee job satisfaction and commitment, with the score for senior leaders rising 9.6 points, the largest increase among small agencies on this issue.
Director of the Office of Human Resources Patricia Connelly believes that these strong gains were the result of a concerted effort and focus, especially among top agency leaders, to improve employee job satisfaction and commitment. Director of operations Bob Koopman agreed, noting, “It is increasingly important in times of tight resources that your most valuable resource, your employees, be satisfied and engaged.”
For the first time in 2013, USITC developed an agency-wide action plan focused on improving employee satisfaction and raising its scores in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which is used to calculate the Best Places to Work rankings. USITC staff analyzed previous employee survey data to identify key areas where scores were low and ripe for improvement. According to Connelly, they approached this effort with a laser focus and identified specific questions in the survey on which they wanted to improve.
Based partially on the review of previous survey data, the action plan identified communication between management and staff, as well as employee empowerment and innovation as the areas where efforts could drive improvements in employee satisfaction.
Agency leaders held a focus group with management and staff to generate ideas around empowering employees and improving communication. Stakeholders from several offices provided input, as did members of USITC’s Labor Management Partnership Council. The final action plan was posted on the agency’s intranet site, and employees were notified of its availability.
According to Connelly and Olympia Hand, a senior program analyst in the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, the action planning process helped boost employee morale and engagement by clearly demonstrating that management was listening to staff feedback and actively addressing their concerns.
In response to the feedback, the agency is working with managers to facilitate interoffice work, reduce bottlenecks, encourage staff innovation and help managers improve performance management and more effectively establish work priorities.
As part of the plan to improve communication between managers and employees, USITC has provided new training to managers on topics such as conducting performance reviews and managing difficult conversations with employees.
Strong support from senior agency leadership was critical to the success of this work, according to Connelly. Also important was having a dedicated staff person responsible for leading and coordinating the action planning efforts. “If you don’t have someone dedicated to it, coordinating with the rest of the agency, you don’t see movement on the scores,” noted Connelly.
The USITC is an independent, quasi-judicial federal agency that serves the public by implementing U.S. trade law and contributing to the development of sound and informed U.S. trade policy.
Two Department of Commerce agencies, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Economic Development Administration (EDA), tell a tale of organizations heading in opposite directions when it comes to employee satisfaction and commitment, according to the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings.
The USPTO is ranked as the number one agency out of 300 subcomponents, registering a job and workplace satisfaction and commitment score of 84.4 out of 100. This represents a 4.1-point increase from 2012, a jump of 20.1 points since 2009 and a rise in the rankings from 172 out of 222 agency subcomponents in 2007 to first place today. The 2013 improvement occurred at a time when three-quarters of all federal agencies showed a decline in employee satisfaction and commitment, and at a time when patent applications are on the rise.
In contrast to the patent agency, the EDA is ranked last out of the 300 agency subcomponents, with an employee job and workplace satisfaction score of only 24.8, a drop of 19.7 points from 2012 and a fall of 15 slots in the rankings.
While the USPTO, an agency with more than 11,000 employees, showed gains in the 10 workplace categories that were measured, the EDA’s scores sank by sizable amounts on all job-related issues.
The EDA, an agency with about 155 employees, provides grants to economically distressed communities to generate employment and stimulate growth. It experienced lower employee satisfaction scores in areas such as strategic management (-13.3 points), pay (-11.6 points), support for diversity (-10 points), effective leadership (-9.4 points), rewards and advancement (-9.4 points), and training and development (-7.9 points).
On the other hand, the USPTO, an agency charged with fostering innovation, competitiveness and economic growth through review and approval of patent and trademark applications, registered increased employee satisfaction on training and development (+4.6 points), teamwork (+4.0 points), effective leadership (+3.8 points), support for diversity (+3.5 points) and rewards and advancement (+3.4 points).
Frederick Steckler, the USPTO’s chief administrative officer, said the agency in the past year has continued to make progress in key areas, including building productive relationships with employee unions that once were quite hostile, improving the patent examination process to speed the workflow, and reducing the large backlog of patent applications.
“Our labor-management relations are huge because it sets the backdrop for a cooperative, engaged environment,” said Steckler. He said many issues have been resolved short of collective bargaining, and noted that having employees and managers working on ways to improve agency performance and then seeing positive results “makes everyone feel connected to the progress.”
Steckler said the agency continues to promote a robust telework program, as well as training and development programs for employees and managers. He said there is an emphasis on management communication with employees and avenues for feedback. In 2013, he said, the agency launched a new web-based crowdsourcing pilot project for employees to contribute suggestions and have a dialogue about innovations at the agency. In addition, Steckler said each work unit analyzes its employee survey data and develops actions plans, and every senior executive must include employee satisfaction goals in their performance plans.
“There is accountability and talk year-round about being a best place to work,” said Steckler. “We have a general atmosphere of self-examination and concern about what we can do to improve our work and the culture.”
EDA officials said they began consulting earlier this year with the USPTO and other organizations to gather best practices and work on improving employee satisfaction.
The agency held employee-led focus groups that submitted recommendations for improvement, and the EDA is currently working to implement some of the proposals. These actions include boosting resources for employee development and training, and increasing recognition of employee achievements.“Commerce Department employees play a key role in carrying out our important mission to help American businesses grow and create jobs. Despite current budget constraints, one of the department’s main priorities is empowering employees at all 12 of our agencies with the tools they need to be successful and feel satisfied in their jobs,” said Patrick Gallagher, the acting deputy commerce secretary.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) experienced the biggest decline in employee job and workplace satisfaction among large federal agencies in 2013, sinking five spots in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings.
The EPA’s overall Best Places to Work score stands at 59.3 out of 100, a drop of 8.3 points, for a 10th place ranking out of 19 large agencies. Last year it ranked 5th out of 19 agencies.
In addition, employee satisfaction at EPA dropped in each of the 10 workplace categories that were measured.
The biggest declines were in satisfaction with pay (-10.9 points), strategic management (-6.6), training and development (-6.3), work–life balance (-4.4) and skills and mission match (-4.2). The agency’s score for effective leadership fell 3.9 points as well, with employees expressing the greatest dissatisfaction in this category on the issues of empowerment (-6.8) and senior leaders (-5.6).
Deputy administrator Robert Perciasepe said EPA employees have a strong sense of mission, believe in the importance of their work and will rebound from what turned out to be a difficult year.
Perciasepe added that EPA was forced to furlough an extremely high number of employees because of the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by Congress, and reduce cash awards for high performers. He noted that the unpaid furloughs began to occur at the same time employees were taking the federal survey that is used to compile the Best Places to Work rankings.
“The EPA’s budget was constrained perhaps more than other agencies, and I do believe the furloughs were a problem at that time,” said Perciasepe.
To address some of its workforce issues, Perciasepe said the agency is taking several steps to increase employee engagement.
One new program called Skills Marketplace is designed to permit employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time on projects outside their normal areas of responsibility, allowing the agency to make the best use of its internal expertise while giving individuals new opportunities to contribute to the work of the agency. About 100 people are now engaged in such projects, but there are plans to greatly expand the program.
The agency also started pilot-testing a crowdsourcing platform called Green Spark, in which managers and employees can solicit help on how to solve pressing problems. “This is another tool to get employees more engaged, feel more connected and have an impact,” said Perciasepe.
Perciasepe said steps are being taken to make better use of technology to help employees do their jobs more efficiently, to more strategically use increasingly scarce budgetary resources and to improve the way agency employees work with states and other partners.
“We are committed to having a high-performing organization where people feel connected to their work,” said Perciasepe. “I believe we have a pretty strong base to work with.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finished last in the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings among 23 mid-size agencies, marking the fourth year in a row that its employee job satisfaction and commitment score has declined.
The department’s overall score is 43.2 out of 100, a 10.8-point drop from 2012 that represents the largest decrease for any mid-size agency. HUD’s employee satisfaction and commitment score has declined 13.9 points since 2010 and 17.1 points since 2005.
In 2013, employees gave HUD lower marks in all of the 10 workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, including pay (-9.2 points), rewards and advancement (-7.1 points), training and development (-7.8), effective leadership (-6.8 points) and strategic management (-6.1 points).
HUD’s mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes. It has about 9,000 employees spread throughout the country.
Chief human capital officer Mike Anderson said HUD employees have been buffeted by a number of factors that contributed to the declining satisfaction, including five days of unpaid furloughs; the three-year pay freeze that has impacted workers government-wide; across-the-board budget cuts that negatively affected a number of housing programs; and a strain on resources and staff related to HUD’s role in responding to Hurricane Sandy and severe flooding in the Midwest.
In addition, Anderson said HUD has been engaged in a major restructuring program that has been unsettling for many employees. This has included closing numerous small field offices across the country, consolidating multifamily housing operations by moving people who worked in 50 offices into 10 offices, and outsourcing some human resources, information technology and financial management functions to other federal agencies.
“People are relocating or having to be retrained and moved to new jobs. Offices are being closed and combined. All of this is disruptive to employees and doesn’t put them in the best mind-set,” said Anderson. “But these are decisions we believe are good for the agency in the long term.”
Anderson said the leadership at HUD knows it has “quite a bit of work to do” to improve employee satisfaction and commitment, and is in the middle of refining a plan to more actively engage the workforce, increase communication and feedback, hold leadership accountable and change work processes in ways that will enhance performance.
He said the department has begun the effort by holding town hall meetings with senior leaders, as well as biweekly interactive webcasts where the leadership can provide information about what is going on in the department and employees can raise issues and get answers.
“We are also trying to highlight and recognize employee accomplishments and draw a direct line between what people do and the mission of the agency,” said Anderson. “We want to increase transparency and build trust and relationships over time. We want to give employees a voice.”