Powered by Mission

Randy Lyhus

Engineers at NASA became near sex symbols on YouTube in the fall of 2012 because of footage showing them erupting with joy at the Curiosity rover’s successful landing on Mars. 

The Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry, inaugurated in 2003, has become a hit with millions of consumers fed up with dinnertime interruptions by telemarketers. 

And the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that melted down Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant showcased how the American government’s safety experts were able to both aid their Japanese counterparts and draw lessons for avoiding such disasters at U.S. plants.

All three agencies have the advantage of being driven by missions that can be communicated crisply and concretely—exploring space, protecting consumers, assuring safe energy. And all three consistently have scored highest in recent years on mission-related questions in the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. 

They top the lists of indices on the effectiveness of leadership and knowledge management and whether their agencies have a “results-oriented performance culture.” The latter measure factors in answers to the survey question: “How my work relates to the agency’s goals and priorities.”

Though employees across government believe their agencies fulfill their missions—74 percent in the 2013 survey, slightly down from recent years—these three agencies boast other attributes that keep them in the good-government spotlight.

The OPM survey results seem to show “everyone is satisfied with their job and everyone knows the mission,” says Paul C. Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. But he argues it takes more than employee surveys to determine “which agencies are always good, which are bad, which were good but got worse, and which were always bad.”

Even in the Employee Viewpoint Survey, he says, “drill down and you find they’re really angry about their supervisors, they think the pay and promotion system is unfair, there’s favoritism, no one gets disciplined for doing a bad job, and innovation is not encouraged.” 

All agencies have missions, the issue is how clear they are, says Mark Abramson, president of the management consulting firm Leadership Inc. and a fellow with the National Academy of Public Administration. Those with the clearest “inputs and outputs,” or what Abramson calls “production agencies,” include the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, which he thinks generally perform well. 

Operations with riskier programs that function less clearly, he adds, might include the Small Business Administration, with its portfolio of loans, and the Energy Department’s green lending program. “What is the standard to judge them by?” he asks. “The big questions are whether they are effective at their mission. Are they adequately funded? Are the missions duplicative? Is there esprit de corps? Employees are happy in agencies with clearer missions,” Abramson says. 

“Science-based agencies have a very clear sense of mission,” says John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. In addition to NASA, these include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, he says. The NRC’s historically effective management, Kamensky adds, is also related to its structure—all of its political appointees are commission members, rounded out by “a good career executive director and career staff.”  

But being mission-driven “is not the same as being results-driven,” says Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which adapts the viewpoint survey results into its own study of the government’s best places to work. “Results in government are often not the same as results in the private sector,” he adds, “since a large piece of what government does is pursue public goods rather than financial returns.” 

Hassett Willis and Co., a consulting firm that specializes in agency strategies, advises clients to focus on the long term. “Mission-driven government agencies require a very different strategic approach from those of private sector organizations,” its website counsels. “The external influences that government agencies must manage necessitate a level of reaction that often competes with the ability to move ahead and deliver on mission.”

The trend in recent years when examining missions is to stress high performance. That means “actually looking at performance data, not getting confused that Employee Viewpoint Survey data is a substitute for performance data,” says Shelley Metzenbaum, the former associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget. She is now directing the government reform nonprofit Volcker Alliance. 

Metzenbaum believes the viewpoint survey is a powerful diagnostic tool managers can use to ask smarter questions. She suggests managers should look for unexpected trends and variations in data to trigger focused follow-up questions. “This may help them find barriers to progress on mission, efficiency and the public’s experience with government,” she says. 

At the same time, OPM’s survey is only about employee perceptions, she adds. “These complement but are definitely not the same as the mission-focused performance and other data agencies need to run high-performing organizations.”

Metzenbaum criticizes OPM for “not paying enough attention to helping agencies analyze their data and benchmark with other units in the federal government doing similar sorts of work.” That would mean placing less emphasis on the composite indices, she argues, and instead showing results on a question-by-question basis. It also involves building a tool that makes it easy to compare trends—by question and by agency-selected sets of questions—among units doing similar work, Metzenbaum adds.


No federal agency has claimed discovery of a “secret sauce” for executing its mission. But in interviews, managers in the trio of standout organizations point to a set of factors that help them instill commitment and engage their employees.

At NASA—which held onto its top ranking in 2013 in the Partnership for Public Service’s “Best Places to Work” compilation—the mission as officially expressed is “to reach new heights, to reveal the unknown.” But at the end of the day, says chief human capital officer Jeri Buchholz, “it’s really about exploration. We are the greatest exploration entity on the planet. We say that proudly, but it’s not boasting. It’s how we view ourselves—the value we add benefits all people.”

Yet NASA through the decades has grappled with shifts in mission after its heyday during the 1960s race to the moon. Buchholz, who arrived two years ago in the post-space shuttle era, says “the big thing now is getting people laser-focused on where the agency is going in the future—the asteroid mission, human travel in space, past the moon and Mars to planetary observation and the solar system observation mission.”

But here on Earth, NASA offices focus on “issues of employee engagement and morale,” Buchholz says. The staff’s commitment was most notable, she adds, after their return to duty following furloughs last year that affected 97 percent of the workforce. They “came back to work instantly reengaged in their work and got everything moving truly seamlessly,” Buchholz says “While not physically in the building, they were still thinking about their work and what steps they would take as soon as they got back.” 

One reason for NASA’s meteoric rise is its concentrated effort to improve internal communication, Buchholz says, using “a layered and sequenced approach to issues important to people.” These include everything from strategic imperatives to work-life initiatives such as the agency’s “work from anywhere” program. Communications to field staff are designed to “have a top-line message—external and internal to the agency—that speaks with one voice,” she says. 

The approach is aimed at “never surprising our first-line supervisors,” Buchholz says. That involves pushing out fact sheets and lists of frequently asked questions to supervisors a week before delivering the message to the rank-and-file, so bosses are prepared to answer queries.

The value of the taxpayers’ investment in NASA is readily gleaned from the agency’s website. “You can find lots of information on NASA in your life, how its spinoffs developed products used at home and with children, that improve life around the world,” Buchholz says.

At the FTC, where attorneys and economists issue regulations to help consumer markets function fairly, the “mission seems to be something people from the top to the bottom understand and rally to,” says Executive Director David Robbins. “Our organizational structure has clear reporting lines and alignment to mission goals that help people understand how their work relates to the mission.” 

The independent commission’s small size—1,176 employees—helps. “That we’re not a huge Cabinet-level agency means we can focus on things that need to be accomplished in an almost laser-like way,” Robbins adds, citing the $1 billion the FTC says it has saved consumers by avoiding adverse market effects. “We have a leadership and management team who care about achieving those things, while assuring that people at FTC have the support and guidance they need. The leaders care deeply about making sure staff have interesting work to do, and that they get timely and meaningful feedback.”

The FTC’s bipartisan design frees staff from much of the politics of the five-member commission, giving employees “an enormous history of working collaboratively,” adds Deputy Executive Director Patricia Bak. Equally important is its strategic plan, which “starts with a staff survey on goals and objectives and emanates from the bottom up,” she says. “Even customer service staff in the administrative service office are connected to mission, and almost all employees have a passport to meet with mentors and members of the senior management team.” 

The FTC also brings in, as guest speakers, winners of the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America Medals, Bak adds, exhorting newcomers to innovate on behalf of the American people and “become the next winner of the Sammie.” Individual performance plans at FTC “include a discussion of what part of the strategic plan the employee’s work supports,” says Karen Leydon, the commission’s chief human capital officer. “Every employee has a results-oriented element in their plan.”

The commission structure benefits staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well. After some contentious congressional hearings in 2011 on the issue of complaints expressed by commissioners about policy differences and perceived hostile treatment of staff by then-chairman Gregory Jaczko, “many employees came to us and said, ‘Wow, what a tremendous job you’ve done protecting us—we had no idea,’ ” says Mike Weber, the NRC’s deputy executive director for operations for materials, waste, research, state, tribal and compliance programs.

NRC’s advantage is that “we tend to attract people driven to wanting to contribute to nuclear safety and security, which is a good match between the mission of the agency and what these people aspire to do,” Weber says.  Many scientists and engineers “quickly realize that the public and Congress expects us to achieve a higher level of safety and security because it’s nuclear, which further motivates our staff.”

More than one NRC employee, when describing his or her work, Weber says, “will see the listener draw back and say, ‘Wow, please do a good job because that’s really important.’ ” 

The October 2013 government shutdown demonstrated how the commission “really uses mission in the core of our decision-making,” Weber adds. The NRC determined that its resident nuclear plant inspectors performed an excepted function and would not be furloughed, even though all but 300 of the agency’s 3,900 employees were idled. 

“We‘ve engaged all of our employees accomplishing the mission,” Weber says, adding that when he joined NRC in 1982, “this was not as clear, particularly for those on the corporate side of the agency, who had trouble making the connection of how doing contracts or budgets contributes to accomplishing nuclear safety and security.”

NRC managers “always look at results of the Employee Viewpoint Survey” as well as internal surveys to find ways to improve in such areas as communication with local offices, Weber adds. Senior leadership meetings twice a year focus on surveys to “understand what employees tell us and incorporate it into decisions on where to invest time and resources,” he notes.  

Commission leaders also practice performance management in “helping employees who may be struggling or not pulling their weight, without compromising privacy,” Weber says.


Reluctant as analysts can be to single out low-performing agencies, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey lays bare the numbers. Scoring lowest among major agencies in mission-relevant questions such as employee engagement are the Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development departments. Both saw their scores decline in 2013.

Indeed, the sour morale at DHS was elevated to the subject of a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Dec. 12, during which the Partnership’s Stier recommended modifying senior leaders’ performance plans to hold them more accountable for improving employee engagement.

“DHS is a new agency still trying to work its will since it was created through a tough merger,” Kamensky says. “There’s still some historical baggage in the culture” of entities such as the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and the current Customs and Border Protection.

In HUD’s case, Kamensky adds, the department “started to go downhill under the Reagan administration, when its administrative capacity was hollowed out. But under the Obama administration, it is finally turning around and has some great leadership down two or three levels.”

Homeland Security, with its 22 legacy agencies and 240,000 employees, cries out to be judged by individual units. Its Transportation Security Administration, says Light, “started out very well-managed” when Coast Guard Adm. James Loy and deputies stood it up with 60,000 employees and met every deadline. “Then it went through a period of decline, with some bad decisions” on expensive and intrusive technology, followed by “somewhat of a turnaround,” he says. “The public has gotten used to TSA.” 

Among DHS’ components, the Coast Guard is one of Light’s favorites. “It’s been good for two centuries. And for the past 30 years, I don’t know of a more committed or innovative workforce in pursuing its mission,” he says, pointing out that Coast Guard ships were first on the Gulf Coast scene after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. 

Lowest in Light’s own rankings is the Veterans Benefits Administration. Service to veterans “has been uneven for 200 years,” he says, “and in the last 50 years has been consistently poor, with spotty leadership, awful technology and an unmanageable rule book.” Contrast that with the Veterans Health Administration, Light adds, which he notes went through a substantial turnaround under the Clinton administration.

One reason some agencies struggle is that their mission is self-contradictory. “If I had to bet where you’ll find the next major scandal and breakdown,” Light says, “I’d pick the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.” All three have responsibility for assuring safety of products while also helping industry speed products to market.

And the Federal Election Commission, Light adds, with its even number of commissioners from both parties, “is the only agency designed to be broken—and has been.”

Metzenbaum sees mission weakness in specific programs, such as OPM’s federal retirement processing and VA’s veterans disability benefits processing systems, which she says are “not as sophisticated as they could be.”

But observers also point to bright spots in departments where goals have been set and progress has been measured and reported on the Obama administration’s Performance.gov website. The Interior Department’s boost in permits to generate renewable energy on public lands while protecting the environment, for example, “was aligned with presidential priorities and required managers to work with people across the country to build a learning network,” Metzenbaum says.

She also praises the Labor Department for evidence-based performance management for some programs, and the Patent and Trademark Office for reducing its patent backlog in cooperation with employee unions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, she adds, kept innovating during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and now is more outcome-based, while the CDC has made strides in reduction of tobacco use. 

Stier puts in a good word for the General Services Administration, saying it “provides great service to fellow federal employees so that the government’s many missions can be achieved.” Sadly, he adds, “the government does a poor job of explaining what it does, in part because Congress is leery of agencies advertising or communicating to the public what they are doing well. What’s more, there’s little in the way of good internal communication. The government doesn’t always explain to its own workforce all the good things going on.”

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