Agency Analysis

Agency Profiles

This year, we take a closer look at six agencies in the rankings to see how they address employee engagement in their workplace. Click on an agency to view its profile.

Intelligence Community Department of Education NASA United States Secret Service Department of Justice General Services Administration

Employee Engagement Improves in the Intelligence Community, Reversing Four-Year Trend

The intelligence community experienced the biggest increase in employee engagement among large federal agencies in 2019, jumping from 5th to 3rd place in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings.

The intelligence community’s 2019 Best Places to Work score of 69.9 out of 100 reflects an increase of 3.6 points in 2019, its largest improvement since it began participating in the rankings in 2009. The intelligence community last improved its employee engagement score in 2014, and then experienced declines from 2015 through 2018.

For purposes of the Best Places to Work ranking, all of the federal intelligence agencies that participate in the Office of Director of National Intelligence’s annual employee survey are assessed as one entity.

“There’s incredible momentum in improving employee engagement,” said Sherry Van Sloun, ODNI’s chief human capital officer. “We are focusing our attention on how we nurture, grow and continuously develop our workforce.”

Through its Right, Trusted, Agile Workforce Initiative, Van Sloun said, the intelligence community is collectively implementing plans for developing a mobile workforce, such as facilitating short-term, project-based, cross-agency assignments to broaden the experience and knowledge of employees.  

“Agency leaders and mid-level managers are committed to helping employees retool and upskill to prepare for new opportunities,” Van Sloun said.

She said agencies are covering the costs of continuing education, including mission-related coursework and, in some cases, advanced degrees. Another available option is the National Intelligence University, an accredited degree-granting institution that allows for classified studies and is free to the intelligence workforce.

The Best Places to Work rankings include 10 workplace category scores. In 2019, the intelligence community’s effective leadership category score rose by 3.3 points, which Van Sloun attributed to efforts to improve leadership development and performance management.

“Leaders have to be able to listen to the workforce—to hear and meet their needs and that really drives the conversation about empathy as a tool in a leader’s toolkit,” Van Sloun said. “We need to be intentional about how we train our managers so they become the leaders we need for the future.”

Van Sloun added that the intelligence community is looking at private-sector performance management models to improve employee engagement, including finding ways to recognize those who excel.

“We’re looking at the way we reward our employees. We want to provide timely feedback that has impact to current work and accomplishments. Cash awards and time off for good work are examples,” she said.

Employee diversity and inclusiveness is another priority. In, the intelligence community’s Best Places to Work diversity score increased by 3.3 points to 73.4.

“Diversity is at the core of our mission. If we don’t have a diverse set of thoughts, based on diverse backgrounds and cultures, we’re not able to produce the best product,” Van Sloun said.

The Intelligence Community Affinity Network, Van Sloun added, fosters workplace inclusion and an interagency culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility and fairness.

“It plays a key role in how we recruit and onboard employees and develop those traditionally underrepresented groups in the intelligence community,” she said.

While efforts to instill a new culture is already paying off, Van Sloun said, there remains room to grow.

“The behavioral aspect of culture change is free, but it is certainly one of the hardest,” she said.

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Employee Engagement Continues to Falter at the Department of Education

Employee engagement at the Department of Education reached a new low in 2019, according to the latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® rankings.

The department’s 2019 Best Places to Work score of 43.7 out of 100 represents a 3.6-point drop from 2018 and marks its lowest level of employee engagement since the rankings were launched in 2003. This slide follows declines of 12.4 points in 2018, 0.1 points in 2017 and 1.5 points in 2016.

Overall, the department ranked last among the 25 midsize agencies included in the 2019 Best Places to Work rankings, the second year in a row that it finished at the bottom of this category.

The department’s subcomponents also fared poorly, with seven of nine included in the rankings experiencing declining employee engagement scores.

The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education fell by 10.7 points to 27.5 points out of 100 while the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services dropped 8.2 points to 40.4. The score for the Office for Civil Rights decreased by 1.7 points to 38.8.

The department’s only subcomponent showing improvement, the Office of Postsecondary Education, registered an employee engagement score of 48.4, up 7.0 points from 2018.

In addition, the department suffered a decline in all 10 categories used to measure the employee experience, including effective leadership, strategic management, support for diversity and teamwork. The department’s leadership score fell 2.4 points to 48.0 out of 100, with senior leaders receiving a score of just 32.8, down 3.0 points from 2018.

The declining scores come amid a loss of staff, changes in workplace policies and continued shifts in departmental policy positions. 

The department, for example, experienced a total net loss of 310 employees between the end of fiscal 2017 and 2018 according to the most recent data available. During that same period, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services lost 13% of its staff while the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education lost 7.7%, the Office of Federal Student Aid lost 8.4% and the Office for Civil Rights lost 7.5% of its employees.

At the same time, there have been shifts in some internal workplace policies. A 2018 policy change curtailed teleworking privileges for many employees who formerly were encouraged to work offsite. Other staff policies have been at the center of contentious contract negotiations between the department and labor unions.

And during the past several years, the department has implemented several controversial policy changes, including those that relate to campus sexual assault, the regulation of for-profit colleges and civil rights enforcement.

Department of Education Press Secretary Angela L. Morabito said Secretary Betsy DeVos is “committed to putting students first, right-sizing the department and being a good steward of taxpayer dollars.”

“To fulfill that commitment, she has made significant changes to the way the department operates, which can be particularly challenging for those accustomed to the status quo,” Morabito said. “But students and taxpayers deserve better than the status quo, and the secretary is here to make sure the department does better on their behalf.”

At the same time, Morabito acknowledged that creating “a more innovative, efficient and mission-driven department cannot come to fruition without dedicated professionals.”

“We are committed to maintaining open lines of communication with employees at every step along the way,” she said.

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NASA Continues to Soar in the Best Places to Work Rankings

For the eighth year in a row, NASA is the number one large agency in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® rankings with a 2019 score of 81.5 out of 100, a 0.3 increase from 2018 and 19.8 points above the government-wide average.

The space agency has improved its Best Places to Work employee engagement score by nine points since 2011 when it ranked number five in the large agency category. With a consistently high and improving performance, it appears NASA has developed its own special employee engagement algorithm to sustain its success.

Bob Gibbs, the associate administrator of NASA’s Mission Support Directorate and formerly the space agency’s chief human capital officer, dispels this notion.

“It’s going to sound remarkably simple. Our success is based on our people. If you look at the structure of NASA, we have people who care about the work and we have leaders who care about their people. That’s the cultural fabric of NASA that’s woven into pretty much everything we do,” Gibbs said.

NASA showed strength in a number of workplace categories during 2019 that reflect a high level of employee satisfaction and commitment. For example, NASA registered an 87.0-point score on the match between employee skills and the agency’s mission, while senior leaders earned a score of 70.2 points—both of which are the highest among large agencies. In addition, 97.9% of employees surveyed agreed they were willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done when needed while 93.1% had a favorable perception of the quality of work done by colleagues.

Seven out of NASA’s 10 subcomponents demonstrated improvement in their employee engagement scores. The Stennis Space Center, with a score of 85.1, improved by 3.6 points, while the Kennedy Space Center, with a score of 86.4, improved by 2.2 points. The two centers ranked number eight and 11, respectively, out of 420 subcomponents. NASA headquarters dropped 2.4 points for a score of 75.0, still well above the government-wide average of 61.7 points.

Although the agency scored relatively low on accountability for poor performers who lack the ability to improve (41.1 points), Gibbs said agency leaders recognize the importance of active listening, accountability and communication when addressing employee engagement issues.

From pulse surveys to periodic small group discussions conducted throughout the year, Gibbs said NASA’s leadership solicits candid employee feedback in a safe and authentic environment.

In one instance, Gibbs mentioned how the Office of Chief Human Capital was undergoing a large-scale transformation to its operations, but changed course after hearing an alternative solution from a junior employee during a group discussion.

NASA also has demonstrated growth in several areas, including employee views of their senior leaders, which rose 1.6 points to 70.2. Employee views on rewards and advancement increased by 1.4 points to 69.0 while strategic management improved by 1.2 points to 71.7 and training and development rose 1.1 points to 81.4.

Gibbs credits this growth to the agency’s culture of recognition, characterized by public ceremonies where family members are invited to attend, as well as its culture of innovation.

In the past year, Gibbs noted that Elizabeth B. Kolmstetter, the director of talent strategy and engagement, launched an internal talent marketplace which connects employees looking to develop their skills to short-term project opportunities across the agency. He said the agency is committed to providing employees with training and development opportunities.

Gibb pointed out that a combination of large and small initiatives keeps NASA’s employee engagement soaring.

“It’s hardly ever one big thing that really changes the game, but it’s listening to concerns over whatever it might be—the quality of research in some of our centers, the availability of parking—all these things that seem small and somewhat insignificant, but contribute to quality of life at work,” Gibbs said.

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The Secret Service Significantly Improves its Employee Engagement Score for a Second Year in a Row

The Secret Service, a subcomponent of the Department of Homeland Security, significantly improved its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® employee engagement score for the second year in a row and experienced gains in the 10 categories that measure the workplace experience.

The law enforcement agency received a 2019 Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 52.9 out of 100, an 8.9-point jump from 2018. The Secret Service stood out this year as one of the most-improved agencies in the Best Places to Work subcomponent category, just as it did in 2018 with an 11-point increase in its employee engagement score.

In total, the Secret Service’s employee engagement score has increased by more than 20 points since 2016 when the agency had a score of 32.8, the nadir of a 30-point downward spiral that began in 2012.

The Secret Service also realized gains in all 10 workplace categories measured by the Best Places to Work rankings. Notable category score increases include a 10.1-point rise in employee satisfaction with training and development opportunities, and a 6.9-point jump in employee perceptions of their leaders.

The Secret Service, which protects the president, vice president, major presidential candidates and foreign dignitaries—and investigates a wide range of financial and computer-based crimes—is an iconic federal agency that experienced high-profile lapses in security and employee conduct several years ago. The agency also has undergone several leadership changes in recent years, with James Murray in May 2019 becoming the third agency director since the beginning of the Trump administration and the fifth since 2013.

The initial downturn in employee engagement coincided with staff shortages that followed mandatory budget cuts imposed by Congress in 2013. This led to longer shifts and forced overtime for agents and for Uniform Division officers. In 2016, more than 1,000 Secret Service agents exceeded the statutory pay cap and were required to work without knowing if they’d be compensated.

“The Secret Service for years and years did more with less,” explained Secret Service Chief Human Capital Office Susan Yarwood. “We stopped hiring. And that came at an incredible expense to the employees who remained.”

With additional support from the administration and Congress beginning in 2015, the Secret Service resumed hiring new agents. Congress also has provided for pay increases above the statutory pay cap for some work, although that authority expires next year.

In addition, a 2016 congressional appropriation of about $10 million enabled the Secret Service to offer its employees retention bonuses, tuition reimbursement and up to $10,000 a year in student-loan repayments.

The agency also provides childcare subsidies. “This is one of our less expensive employee retention programs, but it has a big bang for the buck,” Yarwood said.

Commitment to employee quality of life is also manifested in Secret Service’s support of younger agents who move to Washington, D.C.

“We hire a lot of young people and it’s expensive to live here,” said Thomas Sullivan, chief of the Secret Service’s Uniformed Division. “We can help with moving expenses. And we make sure we connect new agents with mentors in the agency who can help them navigate life in Washington as well as thrive in their jobs.”

“If you can’t give them good quality life, they just won’t stay,” Sullivan said. “We’re hiring good people, now we just need to keep them.

The Secret Service today has about 1,000 more employees than it did in 2016 and is committed to ensuring the staff has the resources they need to succeed, according to Yarwood.

Yarwood said part of this effort has involved improved communication between agency leaders and employees. She said agency leaders encourage two-way communication through staff surveys and other means of feedback. Since 2015, she said, the Secret Service has run Spark, an online employee message board that allows the staff to vote on employee comments they agree with and believe should be addressed by agency leaders. 

“The comments that get lots of votes get looked at and answered by senior leaders,” Yarwood said. “There’s no skirting the issues. You’ve got to respond.”

Yarwood added that the Secret Service also places a premium on impromptu conversations between managers and frontline staff, with managers interacting with and responding to agents “where they are” to deal with workplace issues as they arise.

Sullivan, citing Director Murray’s guiding vision, said the bottom line for today’s Secret Service is “Mission first, people always.” 

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Justice Department Continues Steady Decline in Best Places to Work in the Rankings

The Department of Justice has experienced declining employee engagement during the past four years, dropping to 12th place among 17 large agencies in the 2019 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® rankings.

The department’s 2019 Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 61.4 out of 100 represents a 1.2-point decline from 2018 when it ranked 10th among large agencies, and a 4.9-point slide since 2015 when it ranked 3rd in the large agency category.

In 2019, the department also ranked 13th among large agencies in how employees view their leadership, with a score of 53.8 in this workplace category.

The department-wide engagement score reflects growing employee dissatisfaction across most of the organization’s major subcomponents and divisions. The latest decline comes amid tumultuous times when its employees were affected by a government shutdown, when a new attorney general was sworn-in, and as a number of subcomponents and divisions faced a wide range of high-profile challenges.

The FBI’s employee engagement score, for example, dropped 3.8 points to 62.2, while the Drug Enforcement Administration’s score fell 3.6 points to 70.1, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives slid 1.1 points to 67.0.

The FBI, which experienced a leadership change two years ago after Director James Comey was fired, has received intense criticism from the president. The DEA, faced with the opioid crisis and other serious issues, has lacked a permanent administer since 2015, while ATF, which has had to deal with an epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings, also has not had a permanent director since the Obama administration.

Lower employee engagement scores also were registered by the Antitrust Division, which fell 9.7 points to 41.6; the Executive Office of Immigration Review, down 7.2 points to 43.0; the Environment and Natural Resources Division, down 6.1 points to 68.5; the Tax Division, down 4.7 points to 74.3; and the Civil Rights Division, down 3.1 points to 55.2.

On the upside, the Bureau of Prisons has a 2019 Best Places to Work score of 53.8 representing a 2.2-point improvement. The U.S Marshal Service’s score increased by 1.5 points to 69.5.

A department official said that the chief human capital officer is currently developing strategies to address the issues identified by the Best Places to Work data, but otherwise declined to comment.

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Best Places to Work Score Rises with Multi-Year Engagement Strategy at the General Services Administration

The General Services Administration garnered 7th place among midsize agencies in the 2019 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® rankings, a significant leap from 15th place five years ago and 10th place in 2018.

GSA’s 2019 Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 75.6 out of 100 reflects a 1.1-point increase from 2018, and a 12.8-point jump since 2014.

GSA manages government buildings and real estate, and provides an array of procurement, information technology and financial management services to federal agencies. Chief Human Capital Officer Antonia Harris said the agency has continuously improved the quality of the services it provides to government customers and attributes that progress to a commitment from senior leaders to directly link mission success with employee engagement.

“Having agency goals that cascade to the employee-level ensures that each person feels connected to their work, the mission of the agency and the people they work with,” Harris said.

Harris said GSA’s commitment to a culture of high performance and a focus on the customer is reinforced by agency values of service, accountability and innovation at all levels. “This includes creating a culture where the impact of employee engagement is considered in management decisions to the same degree as budgetary or other operational aspects,” she explained.

While conducting an analysis of the agency’s engagement program, Harris said leadership recognized the biggest challenge was not having enough time to thoughtfully plan and execute engagement strategies before the next annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey was distributed. To address this obstacle, GSA launched a multi-year National Engagement Strategy, which uses organizational development and change management principles to oversee feedback, analysis, execution and revision.

“Engagement is a continuous process at GSA, and this strategy is incorporated across all of the different components of GSA,” Harris said.

Early returns on this approach may already be underway. In 2019, the agency demonstrated higher scores in all 10 workplace categories included in the Best Places to Work rankings. Specifically, employee views of training and development opportunities increased by 3.7 points to 74.1 out of 100. There was also a 3.1-point increase for a score of 60.7 in the rewards and advancement category, which measures to what extent employees feel they are rewarded and promoted in a fair and timely manner for their performance.

Employee views of GSA’s strategic management increased by 2.8 points to 70.2, indicating growing trust in management to ensure that work units retain the skills and knowledge necessary to accomplish organizational goals. In addition, GSA experienced a 1.6-point increase in employee views of leadership for an overall score of 69.1.

Through its multi-year strategy, Harris said GSA has strengthened its workforce planning to better identify future human capital needs, and has applied competency models to support the hiring and development of high-quality talent. Mandatory supervisory training programs also have been streamlined to give supervisors more time on mission and the needs of their team.

Five of GSA’s 10 subcomponents increased their Best Places to Work scores in 2019 while the other half dropped. The top-performing and most-improved subcomponent was the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which improved 4.1 points to 81.6 points. GSA IT improved by 2.0 points and earned a score of 80.5. This is the highest score of all agency information technology subcomponents included in the Best Places to Work rankings.

The most notable drop among GSA subcomponents occurred at the Office of General Counsel, which experienced a decline of 14.8 points for a score of 65.8 points.

For other federal agencies seeking to build a culture of engagement, Harris said a key is building a year-round program that includes focused communications, feedback to employees and meaningful action to address issues affecting the workforce.

“One of the most important lessons is having transparency at every level,” Harris said. “GSA wants to ensure that employees understand how their work directly affects the mission and goals of their organization and the agency.”

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