Satisfied workers key to one small agency's success

Tuesday - 11/26/2013, 1:28pm EST

Leocadia Zak, director, U.S. Trade and Development Agency

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Federal employees overall have plenty to gripe about this year. That was reflected in the Office of Personnel Management's annual survey of federal employees. It showed satisfaction on the job down 4 percent on average, compared to last year.

But one agency bucked that trend. The U.S. Trade and Development Agency outperformed other small agencies in the survey, which said 100 percent of USTDA's employees feel the agency has succeeded in its mission.

USTDA has approximately 50 employees, who help U.S. businesses connect with infrastructure capabilities in emerging markets, with a focus on energy, transportation and telecommunications. It does this by providing grant assistance for project planning and hosting foreign delegations coming to the U.S. and introducing them to American businesses on reverse trade missions.

"We have a terrific group of people who are focused on that mission, and I think that's really an important part of why people come to work every day is the focus of what it is they can accomplish," USTDA Director Leocadia Zak told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. "Also, our size is incredibly helpful. It allows us to be nimble and people to be able to work very closely together to be able to implement that mission."

Leocadia Zak, director, USTDA

Like the rest of the federal workforce, USTDA felt the pressure of tighter budgets and sequestration over the last year. But, the small nature of its workforce made it easier for the agency to work together to set priorities.

"One of the things that we do every year is that we have a strategy session to focus where we're going to prioritize with respect to countries, with respect to sectors," Zak said. "As a result, everyone has buy-in and has focus on the same mission and feel like they're working together. And so, they're able to accomplish their mission. This includes everyone, not only our program staff but our attorneys, our finance staff, our acquisitions management staff. So, everyone is committed to the same thing."

Another key to USTDA's success, according to Zak, is how closely her agency works with other sections of the government such as the Treasury, Commerce and State departments, the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

"The agency is very proud about the fact that for every dollar we program we see $73 in exports and that's a significant rise over the past four years," Zak said. "When people come back from either a trip or they come back with a success, they share that with the rest of the agency."

Smart Grid Today recently named Zak as one of its "Smart Grid Pioneers" for 2013. The honor recognizes the top 50 individuals promoting the modernization and digitization of the power grid.

"The agency has been involved in focusing on energy throughout the world. One of the important areas is conserving energy, even before you're able to generate new energy," Zak said. "So, that's one of the areas of focus for the agency and I've been able to carry the voice for the agency. But it's their good work that I'm talking about."

Many of the companies USTDA works with are small business seeking their first opportunity working abroad, which Zak called some of the most rewarding work her agency does.

"What we really do focus on and have the ability to see is a win-win situation, especially with some of the smaller, medium-sized companies," she said.

Looking ahead to 2014, Zak hopes to maintain the high-level of satisfaction at her agency

"One of the things that we've been focusing on is how we can help level the playing field for U.S. businesses, in part through procurement practices abroad," Zak said. "So, we're partnering with the George Washington University Law School on a procurement project, so, again, leveraging the government and the private sector. We're also focusing on other opportunities, like Smart Grid. These are areas we look to expand but also do it in a way that partners and leverages what the U.S. government can bring to a project."

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