Learning From Government’s Best (and Worst) Workplaces

Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C.

The hearing previously titled “Worst Places to Work in Government” was modified to include the “Best and Worst” at the request of a key senator. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., shared that insight  Wednesday as he greeted agency witnesses brought in to discuss best practices in improving employee engagement.

Human capital officers from top and bottom performers in the Partnership for Public Service’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” study spoke of leaders who seek employee feedback, respond to suggestions and promote participation. The data supporting the PPS study was drawn from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Max Stier, the chief manager of the annual study based on that survey data, warned against an OPM plan to cut survey questions, calling instead for greater detail and an accelerated survey schedule.

“Only 50 percent of employees had positive things to say about the honesty and integrity of their leadership,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Subcommittee Chairman Meadows said. The survey results released in December showed NASA again at the top and Homeland Security Department sill at the bottom.

“Only 33 percent of the workers agreed with the statement that promotions in their work unit are based on merit. Twenty-eight percent of the employees said that the necessary steps are taken to deal with poor performers. And only 21 percent of employees across the government said that pay raises depend on how well the employees perform their jobs,” Meadows said.

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Meadows acknowledged, after describing his recent visits to agency sites, that Congress could do a better job of sharing agency successes with the public.

“I am encouraged by the 2015 governmentwide results showing a 1.2 point increase from 2014 . . . the first increase following four straight years of decline since 2010,” said ranking member Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “I am hopeful that the tide is turning. Not only did employee satisfaction improve, but so did scores in all 10 workplace categories, such as effective leadership, the match between employee skills and agency mission, pay, teamwork, training and development, and work-life balance."

Connolly then cited the litany of troubles the federal workforce has faced in recent years: sequestration; furloughs; a 16-day government shutdown; pay freezes; trimmed retirement benefits; and slashed training budgets. “It should come as little surprise that federal employees were feeling unappreciated and demoralized,” Connolly said.

Positive Signs

NASA’s success, said Lauren Leo, the agency’s chief human capital officer, stems from how “employees feel very connected to the mission and culture.” Still, NASA sees areas for improvement, such as closing the gaps between geographically dispersed centers where not all employees feel recognized and valued, she said.

Representing Homeland Security was chief human capital officer Angela Bailey, a 35-year veteran of federal service recently installed at DHS. “Employee engagement is top priority for the secretary and undersecretary for management,” she said. “From top to bottom, this department is laser-focused on supporting our workforce so they can accomplish their mission.”

But she ran into skepticism from Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., fresh from a morning hearing on the Transportation Security Administration’s apparent mistreatment of whistleblowers. “When is it going to get better?” he asked, suggesting that Bailey imagine herself in a similar role in the private sector. “What is the penalty if you didn’t make it? Who pays the price?”

Bailey disputed his characterization of DHS employees’ morale. “They do not hate coming to work,” she said. “I believe we will make incremental improvements beginning this year.”

Sydney Rose, chief human capital office at the Labor Department, which saw its scores improve more than other like-sized agencies in 2014 and 2015 (including at 70 percent its sub-agencies) said Secretary Thomas Perez has made engagement a top priority. A team of leaders led by the deputy chief of staff meets weekly and encourages employee feedback through town halls and an electronic suggestion box.

Labor staff have implemented suggestions that range from putting microwaves in the cafeteria to enhancing professional development opportunities.

Towanda Brooks, chief human capital officer at Housing and Urban Development Department, noted that HUD had improved its Viewpoint Survey scores on 69 out of 71 questions by an average of 2 points. The key, she said, is regional town halls, and “proactively sharing FEV results with employees. “Leaders actually look at the data and interact with the team to get participation up, and make results available to everyone, by component.”

FEVS Uncertain Future

Stier said the Partnership for Public Service “has serious concerns” about the planned reduction in survey questions, which threatens to “unravel some of our work.” He commended the Obama administration and OPM for choosing to conduct the survey annually even though the law doesn’t require it. He recommended that the survey report results by occupation and use technology to shorten the three-month survey period and get results out faster to increase impact, changes that would require action by Congress, he said.

In the end, Chairman Meadows asked DHS’s Bailey if should could take the lowest-performing departmental units on the engagement questions—the Secret Service, TSA and Customs and Border Protection—and create an action plan within 120 days. She agreed.

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