Agency Analysis

Agency Profiles

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

Small Business Administration Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Department of Health and Human Services U.S. Department of Agriculture

Small Business Administration shows steady improvement in employee engagement

The Small Business Administration, an independent agency that helps Americans launch, manage and grow their own businesses, has improved its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement score for the third consecutive year.

The agency’s 2018 score rose by 2.6 points from 2017 to 62 out of 100 and earned SBA the title of most improved midsize agency, which it shares alongside the Federal Trade Commission. The SBA also showed steady gains in all 10 workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, including a 6.2-point increase in strategic management, a 3-point rise in training and development opportunities and a 2.7-point jump in effective leadership.

Chief Human Capital Officer Elias Hernandez credited this boost to SBA Administrator Linda McMahon, whose commitment to employee engagement has set the tone for the senior executive team. The agency reaffirmed this commitment in its 2018 strategic plan by calling for deeper investments in its workforce development and improving technology to help employees better do their jobs.
As part of this effort, SBA introduced a more robust performance management process to align its workforce with the agency’s strategic goals and hold managers and supervisors accountable for employee engagement.

“It’s not revolutionary,” said Hernandez. “It’s making sure that employees understand the priorities of the organization and that leaders communicate this down the chain to ensure that employees at every level remain in the loop.”

This vision also is incorporated into SBA’s engagement agenda, which prioritizes employee recognition and training to build a workplace culture of learning. Through initiatives like the Action Planning Committee, started in 2013, agency leaders seek to identify challenges and implement solutions to better meet these priorities.

One successful program is the “Kudos to You” award, where employees at all levels can recognize their peers throughout the year. Employees who stand out in areas like problem-solving, teamwork and civility receive electronic certificates to memorialize their accomplishments. Winners are also announced on the program’s intranet site and, during Public Service Recognition Week, highlighted in email blasts throughout the agency.

SBA also hosts the Ike awards, a more prestigious award program named in recognition of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a strong proponent of excellence in public service and proposed the creation of the Small Business Administration. Winners are recognized for their contributions to the agency in four separate categories at an annual awards ceremony.
“Ike is great because it recognizes teams, not just individuals,” said Hernandez. “Employees can really feel recognized for their work – what they do for the benefit of the nation.”

But SBA’s biggest driver of employee engagement comes from the Peer-to-Peer Power Hour, an initiative that lets employees act as leaders to promote knowledge sharing. Employees choose topics or skills that they would like to learn more about, such as understanding how to process contracts. Employees who consider themselves to be subject matter experts are recruited as guest speakers to deliver training sessions and share their knowledge across the agency.

“It’s an opportunity to transform SBA into a learning organization,” said Hernandez.

The initiative also helps to close the mission gap between SBA’s program and field offices. Training sessions are often offered as live streams for field participants, which helps to foster collaboration and align goals across the various work locations.

SBA’s advice for building a culture of engagement? For Hernandez, this means leading through example.

“This issue is that you must own employee engagement. Make sure employees understand the mission and give leaders the flexibility to be creative and innovative,” Hernandez said.

Using a top-down approach, SBA has focused on building the capacity of their workforce so employees understand where they fit in the organization and how they can more effectively achieve agency goals.

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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau experiences big drop in its employee engagement score

Employee engagement plummeted at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2018.

The CFPB, the federal organization responsible for consumer protection in the financial sector, registered a Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement score of 51.7 out of 100 in 2018, a drop of 25.2 points from 2017. The agency saw its ranking among midsize agencies fall from seventh in 2017 to 26th out of 27 organizations in 2018.

In addition to the overall Best Places to Work engagement score, employee perceptions have deteriorated since 2017 in each of the 10 workplace categories that were measured. The biggest drop came on the issue of effective leadership, which reflects whether employees believe their leaders generate motivation and commitment and manage people fairly, while also promoting professional development, creativity and empowerment.

The agency’s effective leadership score fell 15.2 points to 54.9 out of 100 in 2018, with employee views of senior leaders—the top managers of the agency—dropping 35.6 points for a score of just 33.8. The view of employees regarding the strategic management capabilities of the agency leadership fell 14 points to 54.1 in 2018.

Officials at the CFPB did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the possible reasons for the lower scores or whether they have plans to address employee issues identified by the Best Places to Work data.

The agency experienced a good deal of turmoil during the past year, with a change in leadership taking place about five months before the employees took a 2018 workplace survey on which the Best Places to Work data is based.

In November 2017, President Trump installed Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as the acting director after Richard Cordray, the agency’s first director who had held the post since 2013, stepped down. Mulvaney, who simultaneously maintained his role as White House budget chief, called for abolishing the agency while he served as a member of Congress from South Carolina. The CFPB was created under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law in the aftermath of the economic crisis.

Following Mulvaney’s appointment, several changes regarding the agency’s work were implemented. This included easing oversight of payday lenders, cutting back enforcement actions, disbanding consumer advisory boards and proposing suspension of some of the agency’s regulatory activities.

In June, President Trump announced his intention to nominate Kathy Kraninger, an official at the Office of Management and Budget, as director of the CFPB. She was confirmed by the Senate on Dec. 6, 2018.

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Department of Health and Human Services Best Places to Work in the Federal Government score increases for fourth year in a row

The Department of Health and Human Services improved its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement score in 2018 for the fourth consecutive year, maintaining its second-place ranking among large agencies and experiencing increased satisfaction by the workforce on a range of job-related issues.

The department registered a 2018 Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 70.9 out of 100, a 9.1-point increase from 2014. A number of HHS’s subcomponents showed improvements in their scores, including the Office of the Inspector General (+2.5 points), and the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration (both +1.4 points).

A handful of HHS agencies, however, experienced a decline in their employee engagement scores, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which dropped 16.9 points for a score of just 33.4, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which fell 6.1 points for a score of 65.3.

The data also shows the department improved in nine of 10 workplace categories measured in the Best Places to Work rankings, with HHS receiving the highest rating of 81.6 out of 100 for effectively using the skills and talents of its employees to support the organization’s mission. The department’s effective leadership score rose by 1.2 points to 62.3, while the work-life balance category remained static at 66.7.

HHS officials said the senior leadership has made a commitment to improving employee engagement and workforce management, and has focused on such issues as employee recognition, communication and innovation.

Johnathan Gardner, HHS’s Director of Talent and Organizational Development, said the department analyzes the results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the basis for the Best Places to Work rankings, and then follows up with efforts to obtain additional employee feedback. He said the feedback from staff at all levels across the department has helped agency leaders develop focused plans to improve the employee experience.

During one initiative known as Reimagine HHS, senior leaders from across the department convened during a two week period to discuss how to improve programs and reimagine how HHS serves the American people, making use of hundreds of ideas submitted by employees. Senior leaders synthesized these ideas into six strategic categories, including improving performance management.

As part of this initiative, guides containing employee engagement best practices have been developed to support supervisors across the department. One guide outlines options for employee recognition and encourages managers to create work environments where employees are valued, according to Bahar Niakan, who leads the HHS Maximize Talent initiative.

Niakan said many HHS components employ formal recognition programs as well as informal initiatives such as quarterly and Star Employee of the Month rewards to recognize the valuable contributions that employees make on a daily basis.

The department also has a sustained focus on communication. As an example, HHS officials pointed to the Health Resources and Services Administration, where the administrator holds a quarterly agency-wide webcasts to provide direct interaction. These webcasts are seen by HRSA staff at the headquarters and at the 10 regional offices spread across the U.S. Niakan said these meetings have brought all levels of HRSA together, allowing staff members to have their questions answered in real-time.

“It has really brought the most senior leaders closer to the staff,” said Niakan. “It was so impactful, and I encourage other agencies to do it.”

One key driver of innovation at HHS has been the Ignite Accelerator, an internal startup program where teams of three to five employees come up with an idea to improve how their program, office or agency works. The program provides selected teams with coaching and technical guidance in a “fast-paced, entrepreneurial framework.”

Some of the projects have included prototyping an app that makes vaccination information digital and portable; the use of electronic health records to help the FDA more quickly detect patients harmed by medications or medical devices; and a mechanism to help NIH scientists better digitize, store and access scientific data.

One challenge in creating an engaged workforce is the diverse nature of HHS, with each agency focusing on its own mission and priorities. Gardner said the leadership team is committed to improving the employee experience across the department, and from the highest levels to the lowest.

Niakan’s advice to agencies looking to improve employee engagement is simple: “Do not start from scratch. Look to the agencies where the best practices have already been implemented.”

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U.S. Department of Agriculture loses ground in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings

The Department of Agriculture experienced a significant decline in how its employees view their jobs and workplaces in 2018, with its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement score falling nearly seven points from 65.9 to 59 out of 100. USDA dropped from seventh place in the 2017 rankings to 16th out of 17 large agencies in 2018.

The 2018 results reversed a promising trend of improved employee engagement at USDA after four years of consecutive increases in the department’s score.

The USDA experienced decreases in every workplace category measured in the rankings. The biggest losses came in employee ratings of senior leaders, the extent to which employees feel empowered with respect to work processes and their involvement in decisions, and support for diversity. In addition, the employee engagement scores dropped across USDA subcomponents and offices included in the rankings.

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, on which the Best Places to Work engagement scores are based, was taken by the workforce at a time when the department’s leaders were implementing plans to reorganize mission areas, agencies and functions.

“USDA has been active in implementing a new agenda that is geared toward improving the programs we deliver—all with the intent of improving customer service,” said Don Bice, USDA’s acting deputy assistant secretary for administration.

The leaders combined the Farm Service Agency (down 4.4 points), the Risk Management Agency (down 9.4 points) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (down 5.0 points) into one mission area called Farm Production and Conservation. The goal of the move was to better coordinate services provided by agencies that directly serve farmers and ranchers.

USDA leadership also recently proposed relocating two subcomponents, along with their employees, outside of Washington, D.C. by 2019. These subcomponents, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, registered drops of 8.0 and 8.9 points in their engagement scores respectively.

“Change is always difficult,” said Bice “And this may have led to some changes in employee perceptions.”

Leaders also changed the department’s telework policy in January 2018, several months before the survey was taken by employees. The department issued guidance restricting the number of days employees could telework to two days during each two-week pay period. Previously, employees authorized for telework were only required to be in the office for two days each pay period. Only 38 percent of employees reported being satisfied or very satisfied with the department’s telework policy in the 2018 survey, down from 81.4 percent the previous year.

Bice said the telework policy is intended to be respectful of the large majority of USDA employees who report to a physical location for work each day. Although some employees are teleworking fewer days per week, Bice said, there has been a 24 percent increase in the number of employees deemed eligible for telework and a 53 percent increase in the number of employees routinely teleworking.

Bice said the USDA is taking steps to improve employee engagement in the future. “We do take the employee survey results very seriously,” he said. “All members of the Senior Executive Service in their performance plans must consider employee feedback, including from the employee survey, and respond to the results.”

Bice said one issue that stood out in the survey was a concern by employees that the department does not handle poor performers effectively. “So we are trying to deal with that issue,” Bice said.

Specifically, the leadership has redefined and standardized the timeframe around performance plans for employees identified as poor performers. The amount of time employees were required to be on performance improvement plans before further action could be taken varied across the department, with some agencies requiring up 120 days.

Bice said now there is no minimum length of time for employees to demonstrate improvement, but any longer than 30 days must be approved by USDA’s chief human capital officer.

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