Employee tips led to 'most improved' agency

Tuesday - 10/11/2011, 5:18am EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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This story has been updated from its original version.

When less than half of your employees say they'd recommend your agency as a great place to work, you have a problem that's not easy to fix.

But faced with poor ratings year after year, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other international broadcasting, decided to do something about it. Their efforts paid off in this year's employee viewpoint survey, officials said.

The survey, conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, named the agency one of the two most improved, based on employee ratings of leadership, work culture and talent management.

It shared that title with OPM, but the BBG's turnaround was more dramatic. OPM ranked in the middle of the pack in the 2010 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government," which the Partnership for Public Service compiles based on the government's Employee Viewpoint Survey.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, however, was third from the bottom in last year's list of small agencies.

"In the case of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, managers saw the world significantly differently than nonmanagers," said John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service. "In that instance, you have to get together and say, 'I think things are great. You obviously don't. We can't both be right, so let's try to reconcile our views and work towards getting better.'"

Agencies that move up in the rankings follow a tried-and-true pattern, he said.

"The process is clear: It's identifying problems, developing solutions, implementing those solutions, evaluating those results and looking for continual improvement," he said.

That's exactly what the Broadcasting Board of Governors did after its poor showing in 2010.

Kate Neeper, an analyst in the office of the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, said managers appealed to employees for help.

"It's not just that management is going to read the results and decide what to do about it," she said. "We need to get employees' responses and the union's responses."

She conducted focus groups to dig into survey responses that managers didn't understand.

For example, the agency ranked low on safety. Neeper said by talking with employees, leaders realized that staff, who run global information programs 24/7, were concerned about coming into the office when it's dark outside. The agency held sessions to discuss safety tips.

While it had cut funding for training in the past due to budget constraints, the agency doubled training money in hopes that it would boost employees' morale along with their skills.

"It's not a luxury or just a nice to do thing. It's absolutely essential to our success," said Jack Welch, an adviser to the director of the IBB. "If you want to attract or retain people, you need to train them so they believe they're getting world-class training and experience."

The agency also grappled with a governmentwide problem: many employees felt that jobs well done went unrecognized and unrewarded, while supervisors didn't deal with poor performers.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors formed a task force of union representatives and managers to recommend solutions.

"We brought back the medal awards programs, where employees were able to nominate one another and select each other for this big award," said Neeper. "It really sends the message that we're listening. We hear you. And we want to do the right thing to solve these issues with you."

The problem of poor performers may be harder to solve. The 2011 Employee Viewpoint Survey results suggest that most federal workers doubt their supervisors know how to deal with poor performers.

The task force is looking at ways supervisors can let employees know, "What is it that you need to do for us to be successful as an organization, and then provide feedback throughout the year about how well you're doing and not letting problems fester as you move on," said Welch.

The agency has started an ombudsman program to address issues before they blow up into problems that affect more than the employee and supervisor in question, he said.

Next, he said, the agency is tackling its low numbers on the survey questions pertaining to wellness at work.

The 2011 "most improved" standing indicates workers are happier. But that progress may not be enough to move the agency up on the list of Best Places to Work in Government.

"Regardless, the employees of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should feel good about the fact that in 2011, despite everything else going on, all the external negatives, they managed to improve their employee engagement," said Palguta.

The Partnership for Public Service will publish its list of the best agencies at which to work next month.

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