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NASA Is the Best Place to Work in Government, Homeland Security is the Worst--Again

The level of job satisfaction among federal employees at agencies with similar missions in areas such as law enforcement and public health varies widely, according to new analysis.

The level of job satisfaction among federal employees at agencies with similar missions in areas such as law enforcement and public health varies widely, according to a new analysis of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.”

For the first time, the authors of the report – which is based on data from the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey – grouped 75 federal organizations by six mission areas: energy and environment, financial regulation, law enforcement, national security, oversight and public health. The FBI was the top agency in the law enforcement category, with a “satisfaction and commitment” score of 69.9 among employees, while the Secret Service had a score of 33.4 in that category – a 36.5 point difference. The Secret Service was the subject of a recent House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report detailing the agency’s rock-bottom morale, a series of botched operations, and difficulty rooting out bad behavior.

Another significant gap in job satisfaction based on the 2015 data existed between the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which ranked as the top mid-size agency in the analysis, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which ranked toward the bottom in the small agency category.

“Federal leaders should assess the strengths, weaknesses and successful practices of peer organizations and adopt the strategies from agencies that are achieving consistently high employee satisfaction and commitment,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service which, along with Deloitte Consulting, publishes the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

The idea was not to “boil the ocean” but to pick a couple of well-defined subject areas, said Mallory Barg Bulman, research director at PPS. Successful agencies focused on engaging employees and developing leadership programs, Bulman said. For example, the Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency had a number of initiatives focused on the workplace, including a “robust” leadership development track and supervisor coaching program, she said.

Agencies that were at the top and bottom last year occupied those slots in 2015 too. For the fourth consecutive year, NASA was the No. 1 place to work among large federal agencies, with a job satisfaction and commitment score of 76.1 (out of 100) among employees. The intelligence community, departments of Justice, State and Commerce rounded out the top five. The rankings include 391 federal agencies and their subcomponents.

The Homeland Security Department, which has struggled with morale and management since its creation, ranked last among large agencies again. The Veterans Affairs Department, plagued with scandal and mismanagement since the 2014 scandal involving excessive wait times for patient appointments erupted, also ranked at the bottom.

The Housing and Urban Development Department was the most improved mid-size agency, increasing its score eight points to 52.3. HUD, however, still ranks 21 out of 24 agencies; in 2014 it ranked last in that group. “We’re glad for the strong turnaround, and we know we have to keep working on it to continue to improve,” said HUD Secretary Julian Castro in an interview Monday with Government Executive. Castro said agency leadership has tried to regularly engage with employees by providing them with an online forum to make suggestions and give feedback and hold more town halls. Castro, who took over at HUD in 2014, spends a lot of time traveling to the department’s regional offices in addition to talking with headquarters workers. One issue he has heard a lot about from people is the closure of the cafeteria at HUD’s headquarters building in Washington.

“That’s a quality-of-life issue in the workplace that people bring up,” said Castro. “You might say it’s small, but it’s something that impacts people all of the time.”

HUD is also trying to provide more training and professional development for employees, including a candidate development process for the Senior Executive Service, and more opportunities to go on detail assignments.

One of HUD’s greatest challenges is retaining employees, Castro said. “If you take it on a month-by-month basis, there are months when we are losing more people than we’re keeping, even when we are trying to hire.” HUD has a large contingent retirement-eligible employees, but Castro said the department has had difficulty holding onto employees who are early in their careers there.

The biggest factor affecting employee satisfaction and commitment overall in the Best Places to Work rankings related to effective leadership. Federal employees reported slightly more faith overall in their agency’s leadership in 2015 compared to 2014, but trust in top officials is still shaky. The rankings also took into account employees’ views on pay, innovation, and strategic management.

Overall, the job satisfaction of federal employees was up slightly in 2015, reversing a four-year trend of declining rates, according to the analysis. Seventy percent of individual federal organizations improved their overall satisfaction and commitment scores in 2015, compared to only 43 percent in 2014. But feds’ happiness with work is still far below the job satisfaction rates in the private sector – a score of 58.1 versus a 76.6 satisfaction rate in the private sector.

Agencies will be able to look at private-sector data that corresponds to some of the questions on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, as well as review information related to demographics and specific mission-critical jobs like IT specialists and economists.