The Big Picture

Profiles of Notable Movers

Agencies on the Rise

Department of Labor

The Department of Labor improved the most of any large agency in the 2014 Best Places to Work rankings, increasing its employee satisfaction and commitment score by 3.1 points to 58.7 out of 100.

The positive change propelled the department from 17th to 10th place among 19 large federal agencies, reflecting improvements in all 10 workplace categories that were measured, including leadership, training, pay, rewards and advancement, training and teamwork.

Among the department’s 16 subcomponents that were rated, the biggest increases in employee satisfaction and commitment scores occurred at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (+8.3), Employment and Training Administration (+7.7), Office of the Solicitor (+6.8) and Employee Benefits Security Administration (+6.2). Only two units showed a decline in employee satisfaction: the Wage and Hour Division (-3.9) and Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (-1.9).

Seema Nanda, the department’s deputy chief of staff, said Labor Secretary Tom Perez came to office in July 2013 “understanding that employee satisfaction and engagement is critical to our effectiveness and our mission.”

Nanda said Perez held an off-site training session for senior leaders in December 2013 to outline a broad workforce strategy and to get buy-in. She said he asked the leaders to carefully examine their federal employee survey results and to work with employees to develop specific plans while also focusing on issues such as training, encouraging innovation and improving supervision.

She said Perez has sought to improve communication and solicit feedback from employees by holding town hall meetings and by having management teams visit regional offices for separate group listening sessions with employees and managers.

Nanda said the secretary also created a suggestion box that resulted in a new department-wide employee training initiative, and now has transformed this approach into an internal online site called Idea Mill, a crowd-sourcing tool that allows employees to submit ideas, offer comments and vote on the proposals. When an idea has 150 votes, Nanda said, it is submitted to a leadership committee that includes union representatives, staff members from the human resources department, and the office of the secretary and deputy secretary.

She said more than 600 ideas were submitted in the first few months. The suggestions have resulted in clearer signage so people can more easily find their way around the headquarters building, mileage signs for people who get exercise by walking in the corridors, and a number of ideas related to work flexibilities that are being discussed by a labor-management forum. Nanda said the listening sessions in the regions also have resulted in a review of how employee performance plans are structured and evaluated.

In addition, Nanda said the department has launched a program making it easier for employees to take part in rotational assignments of up to 120 days, providing an opportunity for varied work experiences and providing agencies with skills they need in the short term. As of November 2014, 60 slots within the department had been filled and more than 100 were posted.

“We are learning that improving employee satisfaction and engagement is not a linear or a perfect process,” said Nanda. “We have made some mistakes along the way and we realize that a culture change does not happen overnight, but we intend to keep working at it.”

Federal Labor Relations Authority

The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), which in 2007 recorded the lowest employee satisfaction and commitment score in the history of the Best Places to Work rankings and was last among small agencies, has since made a remarkable turnaround, culminating in placing 5th out of 30 small agencies in this year’s rankings.

The FLRA registered a Best Places to Work score of 79.2 out of 100 in 2014, with employees giving the agency increased satisfaction ratings for such workplace issues as strategic management (+9.7 points), support for diversity (+8.1), reward and advancement (+7.2), training and development opportunities (+6.9) and effective leadership (+6.4).

Vicki Barber, the agency’s chief human resources officer, and Sarah Spooner, the executive director, said the FLRA’s leaders have made employee job satisfaction a high priority and continuously consult with the staff members to improve workplace culture and morale and create a partnership in fulfilling the agency’s mission.

“Collaboration with employees and managers on workforce issues has been the key,” said Spooner.

The FLRA, an independent agency of 120 employees created in 1978 to promote stable, constructive federal labor relations, was anything but stable from 2005 to 2009. At various times during this period, the agency did not have enough board members to create a quorum, had to place important decisions on hold, operated without a general counsel, accumulated a lengthy backlog of unresolved cases and saw employee job satisfaction plummet. In 2007, the agency recorded the all-time low Best Places to Work employee satisfaction score of 18.1 out of 100.

The change began in the winter of 2009 at the start of the Obama administration when the vacancies were filled and the agency began working its way through the backlog of labor disputes. In 2010, the FLRA moved from last place to 20th out of 34 small agencies by raising its score to 68.3.

The score improved again in 2011, but then dropped in 2012 and 2013 along with a majority of federal agencies as it encountered some of the same problems it previously experienced, including a period in 2013 when the three-member authority lacked a quorum and as the number of unresolved labor cases grew. But the declines were small compared to the earlier years, and the agency’s Best Places to Work score in 2014 rebounded by 9.5 points.

Barber and Spooner said that managers have made a concerted effort to consult on a regular basis with union representatives and employees on a range of workforce issues, including ways to improve work processes. They said the agency initiated a pilot project that resulted in the use of paralegals after attorneys felt the extra help would lead to greater productivity. In other instances, managers have collaborated with employees to temporarily alter work assignments to meet pressing agency needs.

They also pointed to constant communication with employees, including a regular newsletter, town halls, a listening tour by leaders with employees around the country and a labor-management forum to discuss employee survey results so problems can be quickly addressed.

“We want to make sure we get everybody’s feedback and address employee concerns,” said Barber. “We want to be partners with the employees and have that partnership carry over in the way we do business.”

Securities and Exchange Commission

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is the most improved midsize agency in the 2014 Best Places to Work rankings, raising its employee satisfaction and commitment score by 4.9 points to 63.6 out of 100.

This is the second year in a row the SEC has increased its Best Places to Work score after a period of steep decline. The agency, which protects investors and maintains fair, orderly and efficient securities markets, had fallen from a score of 73.1 in 2005 to a low of 56.0 in 2012.

In 2014, employee satisfaction at SEC increased in all categories of the Best Places to Work rankings. The agency’s largest increase involved satisfaction with pay, with a 5.7-point jump over its 2013 score. Additionally, SEC has the largest improvement of all midsize agencies in effective leadership, teamwork, work-life balance and support for diversity.

The SEC’s chief human capital officer, Lacey Dingman, said the agency’s leadership is committed to improving the workplace, noting that Chairwoman Mary Jo White has “made employee engagement a top priority.”

Among other efforts, Dingman said, White has focused on fostering more effective relations with the employee union. She said one of White’s first actions after being appointed in early 2013 was to conclude agreements with the National Treasury Employees Union that allowed some employees to telecommute as many as five days a week, expanded child-care subsidies, permitted new flexible work schedules and that included the first compensation package in more than five years.

Dingman said the negotiations had been in process for an extended period of time, but the agreement demonstrated the new leadership’s commitment to work closely with the union and has helped improve trust among employees and management. She said the SEC’s initiative to establish joint labor–management partnerships in each office and division have increased employee engagement and satisfaction.

Colleen M. Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said the improvement in SEC’s Best Places to Work results is a reflection, in part, of senior management’s new commitment during the past year to work with employee representatives in a more collaborative way, and to conclude new compensation and collective bargaining agreements.

“NTEU believes the establishment of joint labor–management forums in each local office and division of the agency has contributed to increased employee engagement and satisfaction,” said Kelley. “When management engages with employee representatives at the local level, the result is that employees have more confidence in the agency’s leadership, greater involvement in decision-making, increased satisfaction with pay and benefits, and improved work–life balance.” 

Dingman said the SEC’s “All Invested” initiative has fostered open communication between agency leaders and employees, including efforts to celebrate staff accomplishments, recognize differences and create more cohesiveness around the agency’s mission. The leadership also has held regular town hall meetings to engage employees and maintain an open dialogue.

“We realize we’re on an upward trajectory and we hope we continue to move the needle,” Dingman said. “But there is still some distance we need to go because we’d like to get to the top.”

Agencies Falling Behind

Commodity Futures Trading Commission

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) registered the biggest decrease in employee satisfaction and commitment among small agencies in the 2014 Best Places to Work rankings.

Placing 27th out of 30 small agencies, the CFTC’s Best Places to Work score is 42.3 out of 100, a decrease of 14.3 points from 2013 and drop of 33.4 points since 2010.

The CFTC experienced the largest decrease among small agencies in a number of workplace categories measured by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte, including pay (-12.4), strategic management (-12.2), effective leadership (-9.7 points), work-life balance (-6.9) and training and development (-5.7). 

The CFTC regulates the commodity futures markets for agricultural products such as wheat, corn and cotton as well as contracts on energy and metals commodities, such as crude oil, heating oil, gasoline, copper, gold and silver. It also regulates futures transactions in financial products, such as interest rates, stock indexes and foreign currency. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the agency was given new responsibility under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 to regulate the swaps market, which involves customized contracts traded in the over-the-counter market between private parties.

According to the CFTC’s chief human capital officer, Laurie Lindsay, the financial reform law placed many additional responsibilities on the agency without adding resources. In particular, the agency had to draft almost 60 new rules.

As a result, she said, many employees worked to meet these new responsibilities despite an already heavy workload, which contributed to low levels of job and workplace satisfaction. In addition, Lindsay said compensation levels for CFTC employees have not kept pace with other financial regulatory agencies due to pay freezes and limitations on merit-based pay increases. Employee satisfaction with pay at the CFTC fell from a high of 78.0 in 2009 to 28.8 in 2014.

In October 2014, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) won an election to represent more than half of CFTC’s 627 permanent employees.

“Budget pressures, fair pay and inadequate staffing are major concerns for CFTC employees,” said NTEU National President Colleen M. Kelley. “Workload at the agency increased with the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, but increased funding and staffing have not been there to help them meet those additional responsibilities.”

According to Lindsay, initial conversations with union representatives have been positive. “I think both parties want to do the right thing. We want to be collaborative,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay highlighted several agency personnel initiatives under recently appointed CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad, including steps to enhance leadership accountability, discussions with division directors about employee survey results and a requirement that each division director develop a plan to address employee satisfaction and engagement.

Lindsay also said the CFTC has placed greater importance on gathering feedback, including holding listening sessions where employees and supervisors can raise concerns and suggest improvements.

“I feel this is a great place to work, but we still have a lot of work to do in a number of areas,” said Lindsay.

Department of Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, is last among 19 large agencies in the 2014 the Best Places to Work rankings.

With a mission to prepare for, prevent and respond to terrorist threats and other domestic emergencies, DHS has an employee satisfaction and commitment score of only 44 out of 100. This is 2.4 points lower than in 2013, representing the biggest decrease among the large government agencies. DHS also is the lowest ranked large agency in each of 10 workplace categories measured, including leadership, strategic management, training and teamwork.

A number of DHS subcomponents fared poorly. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology are tied for last place last among 315 agency subcomponents that were separately ranked, while the Office of Intelligence and Analysis is rated 313. Only about a third of the employees from these DHS organizations gave positive responses when asked about their job and workplace satisfaction.

In addition, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) ranks 305, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ranks 281 and the Secret Service ranks 276 among the government subcomponents, with less than half of the employees from these DHS agencies giving positive responses regarding job and workplace satisfaction and commitment.

On the positive side, the department’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office ranks 11th among all government subcomponents with a Best Places to Work score of 75.5, while the Coast Guard ranks 66th with a score of 66.6.

Catherine Emerson, the DHS chief human capital officer, said the department’s senior leadership “recognizes that morale and satisfaction among the agency’s 168,000 full-time, permanent employees are of vital importance and that employees deserve a workplace that acknowledges their efforts, supports their great work and fulfills their highest aspirations.”

“Since Secretary Jeh Johnson and Deputy SecretaryAlejandro Mayorkas assumed office this past year, they have been committed to making our workforce’s professional fulfillment one of their highest priorities,” said Emerson. “A great deal of work is ongoing and there is much more to be done.”

Emerson said an employee engagement steering committee comprised of representatives from across the department has been created to address critical issues impacting morale, and is focusing initially on a series of items that employees have identified as primary sources of dissatisfaction or concern.

She said this includes creating more transparency and fairness in hiring and promotions; investing in training and professional development; recognizing and rewarding employee excellence; building a stronger performance management system; enhancing communication so all employees feel connected to their work and the department; and building a mechanism to solicit, capture and act on employee ideas on how to improve the department.

Emerson said the department is currently examining the processes by which it selects and trains its executives, develops their skills and helps them foster an environment that “motivates people, inspires commitment, encourages integrity, and manages fairly.” She also noted that the department has reestablished the annual Secretary’s Awards to acknowledge outstanding individual and team achievements across the department, and in October 2014 recognized more than 300 DHS employees.

Agencies in the News

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the news for its efforts to stop Ebola from spreading in the United States, is rated among the top 25 percent of federal agency subcomponents in the 2014 Best Places to Work rankings.

The CDC, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, recorded a Best Places to Work employee satisfaction and commitment score of 68.8 out of 100, placing it 44th out of 315 subcomponents ranked by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte. This score represents a 2.1-point decline from 2013, but a 14.7-point increase since 2007.

The data show that 82.1 percent of CDC employees believe the agency is successful in accomplishing its mission, compared to 69.5 percent of employees government-wide. Employees also gave good marks for the CDC’s leadership, for the connection between worker skills and the agency’s mission and for the sense of teamwork that exists within the organization.

Sherri Berger, the CDC’s chief operating officer, said the agency’s 10,000 federal employees are part of a “close-knit community” who come to work every day knowing that their goal is to protect the health and safety of the American people.

“The people here are very passionate and they know why they are here,” said Berger. “When we face a challenge like Ebola, everyone rolls up their sleeves and says, ‘How can I help?’ We pull together as an agency when there is a public health emergency, whether it is Ebola, Hurricane Katrina, the cholera epidemic in Haiti or the H1N1 influenza pandemic.”

The CDC, responsible for protecting the public health and safety through the control and prevention of disease, injury and disability, comprises a wide range of occupations, including health scientists, medical officers, public health advisors and analysts, information technology specialists, economists, emergency response personnel and management and program analysts.

Berger said the CDC formed the Healthy Organization Work Group several years ago in response to concerns identified in federal employee surveys, and has focused on four primary goals to improve employee satisfaction and commitment: recruiting, retaining and supporting the CDC’s skilled and diverse workforce; enhancing supervisory skills across all levels of the CDC; continuously recognizing performance, contributions and achievement of staff; and improving internal communication to increase staff morale and employee engagement.

Berger said there is an internal website with a blog by the director and opportunities for employees to offer their opinions and provide feedback to leadership. She said the director holds town hall meetings and all-staff teleconferences to keep employees informed and to allow them to raise issues of concern, and meets regularly with different groups of employees for breakfast to get direct input from the front lines.

In addition, Berger said the CDC has programs to recognize and reward outstanding employees, an emphasis on evaluation and improvement of supervision, and a program enabling employees to fashion their own development plans and get the training they need to improve and advance in their careers.

Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), beset by a scandal over long wait times for medical care that led to congressional investigations and the resignation of its top leader in 2014, dropped five spots in the Best Places to Work rankings as its employee satisfaction and commitment score declined.

The VA registered a 2014 Best Places to Work score of 54.6 out of 100, a drop of 2.7 points from the year before. This decline pushed the VA to 18th out of 19 large federal agencies, compared to a 13th-place finish in 2013. The department also experienced decreased employee satisfaction in all 10 workplace categories that were measured, including effective leadership and strategic management.

The Best Places to Work rankings are based on data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which was administered to VA employees from May 6 to June 13, 2014, just as the department was reeling from reports about a cover-up of long wait times for veterans seeking medical care, employees getting bonuses for meeting patient care targets that were never achieved and retaliation against whistle-blowers. These developments led to inquiries by the White House, the VA inspector general and Congress, prompting the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Gina Farrisee, the VA’s chief human capital officer, said the “negative environment absolutely contributed to the low scores,” including the 4.6-point drop in how employees view their senior leaders.

The biggest challenge going forward, she said, is to overcome the turmoil by “rebuilding trust with the veterans and with the employees.” She said this means focusing on the needs of veterans and “enhancing employee engagement.”

Farrisee said Robert McDonald, the new VA secretary who took over this past summer, has been intent on strengthening lines of communications with employees and creating a culture of transparency and accountability that welcomes critical feedback. She said McDonald has held town hall meetings and visited VA facilities across the country to connect with employees, emphasize the importance of the mission and address concerns. He also has taken steps to recruit more doctors and other health-care professionals, and improve veterans’ access to care.

In November 2014, McDonald announced a reorganization plan that includes hiring a chief customer service officer and making it easier for veterans to access services by creating a single regional framework encompassing health care, benefits, loan centers and cemetery plots.

McDonald also launched a new website known as My VA Idea House, an online platform for agency employees to submit ideas for improving services, streamline processes and solve issues for veterans. Employees can vote on submissions from their colleagues. The VA secretary said all of the changes are designed to better assist veterans and to empower employees with “the authority, knowledge and tools they need to solve problems and take action.”

Farrisee also said the 2014 employee survey results have been shared across the department, and plans have been developed with participation of managers and employees to address some of the pressing concerns at a number of departmental units.

She said the VA has engaged in whistle-blower training to ensure that employees with complaints are heard and not punished; created an office to deal with claims of employee harassment; developed new employee recognition programs; increased training for first-line supervisors; and undertaken frequent internal employee surveys to take the pulse of the workforce so problems can be spotted and quickly addressed.

While the events of 2014 adversely affected the VA, its employees have been under stress for some time as demand for services has steadily increased. Since 2009, the VA has experienced an 11.4-point slide in its employee satisfaction and commitment score.

New to the Rankings

Architect of the Capitol

The Architect of the Capitol (AOC), a legislative branch agency, joined the Best Places to Work rankings for the first time in 2014, and placed 8th among 25 midsize agencies with an overall employee satisfaction and commitment score of 67.8 out of 100.

The agency is responsible for the maintenance, operation, development and preservation of 17.4 million square feet of buildings and more than 553 acres of land throughout the Capitol Hill complex. The AOC also is charged with preserving the architectural and artistic elements entrusted to its care, and provides recommendations concerning design, construction and maintenance of the facilities and grounds.

A diverse mix of professionals makes up the workforce, including architects, engineers, botanists, museum curators, custodians, craftsmen and tour guides.

Christine Merdon, the AOC’s chief operating officer, said leadership is keenly focused on ensuring that the diverse workforce is engaged, motivated and feels connected to the agency’s mission. She said the AOC has instituted a supervisor academy to strengthen training, organized recreation committees to encourage employees to connect outside of work, and established temporary detail assignments to give employees new experiences and opportunities.

The AOC joined the rankings as part of its ongoing effort to ensure that the agency is a great place to work, according to Merdon. She noted that being part of Best Places to Work will allow the AOC to benchmark itself against other agencies and see where it ranks in terms of employee satisfaction and commitment.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) joined the Best Places to Work rankings for the first time in 2014 and placed 12th among 25 midsize agencies with an overall job and workplace satisfaction and commitment score of 66.1 out of 100.

CFPB is one of the youngest federal agencies, opening its doors in 2011. Its mission is to enforce consumer financial protection laws when Americans deal with banks, credit unions, securities firms, payday lenders, foreclosure relief services, debt collectors and other financial companies. The agency employs a wide variety of professionals including financial analysts, bank examiners, researchers, economists, lawyers, and operations and administrative support professionals.

In the 10 workplace categories included in the Best Places to Work rankings, CFPB placed fourth among midsize agencies for skills–mission match (79.9) and support for diversity (66.1), but 12th for training and development (58.6) and performance-based rewards and advancement (44.7).

Analisa Archer, the acting chief human capital officer, described CFPB’s workforce as “extremely passionate, deeply committed, talented and motivated.” 

Archer noted that as a fairly new organization, CFPB faces several employee engagement challenges. For example, while leaders have been keenly focused on hiring and staffing the new agency, she said, staff surveys have identified the need for more training and development opportunities.

Archer said the agency leaders are responding by developing a suite of career development tools to help employees understand the different career paths at CFPB and how to navigate them.

Clearly communicating the bureau’s priorities to staff can also be challenging for a new organization still focused on building its basic infrastructure. In response, Archer said the agency has launched a “One Bureau” initiative that brings together senior leaders to build a framework for deciding on priorities and clearly communicating those priorities to staff.

Archer said CFPB’s leaders see participation in the Best Places to Work rankings as a tool to help them address some of these challenges. “Participating in the rankings gives us a great way to benchmark our progress against other organizations,” she said.