Highest ranked agencies distinguished by strong leadership

Friday - 12/14/2012, 5:42am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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NASA, the Surface Transportation Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation share a common trait as part of their ranking as the Best Places to Work among their similarly sized agencies.

Leadership is the factor that differentiates the successful agencies in keeping their employees satisfied and those that continually struggle with morale issues.

Max Stier, president and CEO, Partnership for Public Service

"Many people think the frontline supervisors are the ones that drive satisfaction, but our data tells us that senior leadership is the most important factor," said Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, at the organization's event highlighting the release of its seventh annual agency rankings Thursday in Washington. "About 60 percent of the change in an agency is driven by the employees' perspective of their management. Good leadership can make the biggest difference and have the most impact."

The Partnership and Deloitte's research showed that overall employee satisfaction dropped in 2012 to 60.8 points, a 3.2 point decrease over 2011.

But each of the top-ranked agencies — and several other highly-rated departments — defied the constant morale busting attacks from Capitol Hill against federal employee pay, benefits and the overall limitation of resources.

The core of NASA

Lori Garver, the deputy administrator of NASA, said the space agency's top ranking comes down to its employees feeling a connection to the mission.

"I think the number one thing is communication and respect for your workforce," Garver said in an interview with Federal News Radio after the awards presentation. "We are an open organization and [NASA Administrator] Charlie [Bolden] and I have tried very much to constantly be in communication with the workforce and to listen. Communication is two way. We go out to the centers and give all-hands [meetings]. The list shown today of the top things you do, every single one is something we believe in to our core, not because it's on a list. We do it naturally and our workforce comes to NASA because they want to make a difference and I think they are feeling a part of an agency that is making a difference."

John Porcari, deputy secretary, Department of Transportation

NASA jumped to No. 1 from No. 5 in 2011, but the four agencies in front of them were put in a new mid-sized agency category for organizations with 1,000 to less than 15,000 employees.

The Transportation Department saw the biggest jump of any large agency, moving up 4.1 points in 2012 and 11 points since 2010.

John Porcari, the deputy secretary at DoT, said leadership from Secretary Ray LaHood on down is the biggest reason for the three-year improvement.

More specifically, Porcari said Transportation implemented several initiatives to address weaknesses in employee satisfaction.

He said among the ideas that had the biggest impact were, "Town hall meetings both electronic and in person around the country, here in Washington with the Secretary and employees, setting up IdeaHub where all of our employees can submit ideas, rank each other ideas and submit them for management consideration. We've implemented a number of IdeaHub suggestions. When people see that we are taking their suggestions seriously, it helps."

Drilling down into the bureaus

Porcari also said DoT drills down to the bureau level to address satisfaction issues. He said the Air Traffic Controllers is a good example of this effort.

"We've tried very hard to build a productive partnership. We feel like we've gotten there and that's one of the single biggest components that is driving the change here," he said. "Better training for frontline supervisors is another component of it. You need to put all those together and they drive the department."

Porcari added DoT also puts employee engagement as a performance metric in managers' assessment plans, and that too is helping to change the agency's culture.

The Office of Management and Budget was the most improved agency across the government with an increase of 13.3 points.

OMB ranked 11th among small agencies. It had seen a dramatic drop of 22 points in employee satisfaction between 2009 to 2011.

"OMB was able to take advantage of in-depth data to drill down and spot both trends across the agency and also specific issues at a fairly micro level, and then act upon those data," said OMB Controller Danny Werfel in an email to Federal News Radio. "By honing in on the root causes of employee concerns and addressing them, OMB was able to dramatically improve employee satisfaction across the board."

The National Credit Union Administration was the most improved mid-size agency with an increase of 2.9 points, which earned it a sixth overall ranking in that category.

Four years at No. 1

For the fourth year in a row, the Surface Transportation Board received the top ranking for small agencies, and this year the highest score among all agencies with 84.3. The Congressional Budget Office was a close second with a 84.2. This was the first year CBO participated in the rankings.

Daniel Elliott, chairman, Surface Transportation Board

Daniel Elliott, the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, said the top ranking comes from a continued focus on open communications and employee engagement.

"What I try to do is feel open to the employees. My office is open every Thursday for anyone to come up whether it's just to talk or if it's a complaint, and they know I'm there to listen to them and take their concerns seriously," he said. "I also believe the directors in the agency are also open in that same manner. They are good people, who listen to their people and care about their people I think the employees that work at the agency sense that."

Elliot said employees at the board also feel a sense of purpose and lasting impact. He said their sense of worth is real and not just lip service, especially around the decisions they issue that will have a lasting impact on the country.

DoT's Porcari echoed Elliot's belief that there can't be too much manager-to-employee communication.

"It drives senior management, mid-level management and how we think about issues, and it means all of us are going to be accountable for what we do," he said.

Porcari said DoT will continue to improve how it communicates with its employees, ensuring news, good or bad comes from the top and not via the media or the rumor mill.

NASA's Garver said her focus will be on employee communication as well. She said internal and external discussions about what NASA is doing and the impact it's having on the U.S. space program is important as a way to keep employee morale high.

The Surface Transportation Board's Elliott said creating a personal experience with employees and managers really goes a long way to listening and learning about the agency.

The Partnership's Stier said successful agencies dig deep into the survey's results to find the areas that need the most work.

"What you all are trying to achieve cannot be measured by financial metrics. We don't have stock prices. By and large, most of the work done by the federal government cannot be measured simply by dollars and cents," he said. "But what we do know is that when we have engaged employees, we have better performance. What we've tried to do with the Best Places to Work rankings is to give all of you the tools that will enable you to better manage your agencies by giving you real data on what your employees have to say about your agencies, and very importantly, benchmarking that across government."

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