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Best Places to Work: More than Just a List

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of PATimes, Workforce Management.

By Mallory Barg Bulman
April 27, 2018

As the financial crisis unfolded during the early years of the Obama administration, employees at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) were under tremendous stress. The former were dealing with major bank failures across the nation; the latter were coping with a securities industry meltdown and trying to implement complicated new financial regulations.

During this period, the FDIC’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government employee engagement scores improved as agency leadership paid close attention to workforce concerns and culture. In contrast, SEC scores plummeted, with the U.S. Government Accountability Office subsequently describing an agency with low morale, employee distrust of management and an environment that hindered the staff from fulfilling its mission.

The Best Places to Work data turned out to be a wakeup call for the SEC, which embarked on a sustained program backed by its top leaders to improve communication with employees and managers, provide greater recognition of employee contributions and institute new leadership development training opportunities.

The result has been profound. The SEC increased its employee engagement score from 56.0 out of 100 in 2012 to 80.9 in 2017, with improvements in morale and on a wide range of workplace measures, from employee views of leaders to a belief that their skills match the agency mission.

The SEC example illustrates the role that the Best Places to Work data, based on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, can play in alerting agency leaders to signs of trouble, pinpointing a range of workplace issues that need attention and holding leaders accountable for their organizations’ management and health.

The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte release the Best Places to Work data and rankings every year, believing that highly engaged employees are likely to be satisfied with their jobs and motivated to achieve agency goals, leading to greater efficiency, more innovation and better results. In short, employee engagement is a necessary ingredient to developing high performing organizations and attracting top talent.

Over the years, we have learned that key to a high level of job satisfaction and commitment are effective leadership and a sustained effort to communicate with employees, listen to their concerns and address thorny workplace issues. This is not a one-time event, but a continuous, long-term process—as one federal official put it, a marathon.

We also have learned that it helps enormously if the president sets the tone by holding Cabinet secretaries accountable for creating productive workplace cultures. Absent that leadership, slippage in government performance can easily occur.

At a 2016 awards ceremony honoring agencies with high Best Places to Work scores or significant improvement, then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told of receiving a call in early 2009 from White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu telling him that USDA was doing poorly in the Best Places to Work rankings.

“Chris said the president was concerned about that and wanted to know what we were going to do about that,” said Vilsack. “That made an impression on me, so we began a process that has taken a while to culturally transform our department.”

USDA’s strategic plan subsequently included the goal that the agency would rank in the Best Places to Work Top 10 by 2018, followed by steps to work with employees to enhance workplace culture. In 2016, USDA ranked ninth in the large agency category; in 2017, it moved up to seventh place. The same was true for the Labor Department, which traditionally had a very low ranking among large agencies. Many employees had low morale and were generally disengaged, partially the result of a lack of leadership development and training.

In late 2012, the department began devoting resources and attention to developing the leadership capacity of its new Senior Executive Service members. This was followed by a multi-year effort to improve leadership at all levels. Since this initiative began, the Labor Department has made significant strides in employee engagement, improving in every leadership category of the rankings and earning the distinction of the most improved large agency in 2014 and 2015. In the past two years, it has ranked sixth among 18 large agencies.

It also helps if Congress is pays attention and conducts oversight as it has done with the Department of Homeland Security, which has been called on the carpet numerous times for its low rankings. The congressional spotlight prompted the department to take action, resulting in significant signs of improvement during the past two years.

During President Obama’s tenure, agency Best Places to Work scores initially improved across the government and then began to slip. The president made employee engagement a cross-agency priority goal starting in 2015, requiring every agency to have senior officials in charge of developing and following through on employee engagement plans. He also mandated that SES members have an employee engagement component in their yearly performance plans.

In implementing the goal in 2015, the administration said “A growing body of evidence in the public and private sectors has shown a strong relationship between high levels of employee engagement and improved organizational results.”

Scores began to rise; the government-wide employee engagement score hit 61.5 out of 100 in 2017, the highest registered in six years. Maintaining this momentum requires a strong commitment from the Trump administration to further strengthen the employee experience, from training and developing leaders to ensuring employees have a positive work environment and resources to do their jobs.

Author: Mallory Barg Bulman is vice president of research and evaluation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, where she leads its thought leadership agenda, including overseeing the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. Prior to that time, she was senior analyst in the Strategic Issues team of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). She can be reached at [email protected]

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