Words from the wise: How 3 agencies attained best places to work status

Thursday - 12/19/2013, 4:30am EST

Jason Miller reports.

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NASA, the Patent and Trademark Office and the Federal Communications Commission are among those agencies that put a premium on management, employee engagement and training.

All three earned a spot among the top places to work in government in the Partnership for Public Service's latest report.

As the best place to work in government among large agencies, NASA scored 74 out of 100, almost seven points higher than the second place large agency, the Department of Commerce.

The Patent and Trademark Office earned the top ranking among 300 agency subcomponents.

The Federal Communications Commission's score increased 4.6 points to 71.3, for an overall ranking of 7th among mid-size agencies in 2013.

Federal News Radio asked each of these agencies three questions to get a glimpse into how they earned their top rankings. Below are excerpts from the conversation after the Partnership's event in Washington Wednesday.

Robert Lightfoot (left) is the associate administrator at NASA. He accepts the top places to work award from the Partnership for Public Service CEO and President Max Stier. (Photo: Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

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WFED: What does employee engagement mean to you?

Robert Lightfoot, the associate administrator at NASA: When you look at the guy on the floor making those missions happen that we think are so amazing, that guy on the floor has to have that tie and feel empowered to go do what he needs to do. They talked about empowerment here today, and I feel encouraged in the way we empower our employees to make those missions happen. As long as they feel that empowerment, man, they are ready to go and make these things happen. We love to say we make the impossible, possible and that allows them to do it. If I put a lot of constraints on that, it doesn't work so well. We really have been working on that pretty hard to empower the folks at the lowest level to get their work done and do it in the right way.

WFED: Describe how you empower folks. It is just letting them make decisions? Is it about making them a part of the decision making process, or does it even go further?

Lightfoot: It's a little of both of that, making sure their input is taken in in the decision process is critical. We do a lot to try to pull that out. Just don't sit there and tell us what you think, make sure you tell us. If we are doing something that doesn't make sense, please speak up. Our workforce is not afraid to speak up. That's the strength of our team, is having the lowest level folks tell senior managers, 'No, we can't do that.' I think that is a hallmark to our agency, and what we've been able to accomplish is having that ability to have that kind of dialogue and conversation. And bluntly, it's our strength that those folks will tell us, because they are closer to [the mission] than we are.

Peggy Focarino, commissioner of patents at PTO: We have a training academy where all of our examiners are hired into. And as soon as they come into that environment and they are on-board, we tell them they are the ones that are important and are doing the job day-to-day. They are examining the patent applications. They are reducing the backlog. They are examining the trademark applications. They are the ones that we support as a management and leadership team. They are the ones that make it all happen.

Peggy Focarino is the commissioner for patents at the Patent and Trademark Office. She accepts the top places to work award from the Partnership for Public Service CEO and President Max Stier. (Photo: Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

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WFED: Lot of people would take a cynical look and say, 'Of course you will say that as a manager, that's your job.' What steps do you take from a management perspective that says, 'We will show you that you're worthwhile?'

Focarino: We have various ways to do that. Obviously we have monetary awards, but we also have recognition ceremonies and recognition events just to celebrate, say for example, a decrease in the patent application backlog. Everyone knows what that backlog is and how it's gone down, and how they individually contributed to that. So we just take time out to celebrate that. We get everyone together and celebrate, and yes we have a ways to go, but everyone knows we are moving in the right direction and they keep focus on that.

Ruth Milkman, chief of staff at the FCC: There's a lot of communications between the chairman's office, and the commissioners and the staff, but also the senior staff, talking to the employees to make sure they understand not only what the total agenda is, but what their place, what they do is important to advancing the mission of the agency, and to doing the things that are important to the American public.

Ruth Milkman is the chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission. She accepts the top places to work award from the Partnership for Public Service CEO and President Max Stier. (Photo: Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

Listen to our full interview with Ruth Milkman.

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WFED: When you do that kind of communication, do the chairman or commissioners have town hall meetings, are they doing it through email, are they doing it through open door policies or through brown-bag lunches. Are there any best practices, if you will?

Milkman: So all of the above. One of the things that has been most successful at the agency is bringing line employees up in small groups to meet with the chairman or commissioners and do brown-bag lunches. We also, of course, do emails, town halls, thank-you emails, particularly when they've done something good like reduced a backlog.

WFED: How are you growing and retaining good managers?

Focarino: The first line manager is really the number one reason why employees stay in an agency or leave, so we have a very robust training program. What we've done in the manager's performance plan, we have a heavy focus on coaching and mentoring, not just a leadership component, but a coaching and mentoring component. We give training so those managers can have the skills to work with their employees as a mentor or coach, and not as a bean counter, if you will, so we have a lot of programs for our supervisors to obtain the skills to do that.

WFED: Have you guys been successful, or lucky is the word, in keeping managers in for at least a long time period of time, whether it's five years or 10 years or 30 years? It's that turn over that gets people, 'Oh no here we go again. A new person I have to break in.'

Focarino: We have a lot of more senior managers and we have some very new ones. We have this training academy that I mentioned, and what we find is that some managers who are getting a little burned out, we send them to the training academy to teach new examiners. And it's sort of a rejuvenation for them because they see how much they know and see how much they can impart to the new people. They really take a lot of pride in that.

Milkman: One of the things we do is we have something called the FCC University, which is a set of training and ongoing learning programs, so that people can continue to develop professionally at the agency. They find that very attractive. People generally like what they do. They feel like the FCC is a family, and as long as they feel like what they are doing is important and advancing the mission of the agency.

WFED: I think part of that is having a good boss to work for. Talk a little bit more about the FCC academy. I'm seeing a little bit of a trend here when we talked with some of the other agencies who are successful, they also have that same training piece. It is something that has sprung up over the last few years or has it always been there or have you guys reinvigorated it somehow?

Milkman: It's always been there. We hired a new training coach or person. We also offer executive coaching to our managers. And so I think they feel supported and feel like there's a variety of ways they can continue to develop.

Lightfoot: We have training even for employees who are just thinking about management, mid-level leadership-type programs that we do. We have training at every one of our centers and it's pretty consistent across the agency. I would call it just basic supervisory skills that you just have to have. When you become a supervisor, it's a different set of skills and in our world, which is a lot of engineers, you take an engineer and make him a supervisor, sometimes it's a different set of skills. We spend a lot of time with those folks going through that. So, yes we have a lot of that same kind of training.

WFED: What are on the tactics and techniques you use that others agencies could borrow?

Milkman: I have to go back to communications, communications and communications. That's our middle name. We are the Federal Communications Commission. It's so important, as you said earlier, to communicate not only to the outside world about what you are doing, but within the agency and make sure everyone understands the importance and how they fit into the mission.

WFED: Looking forward, is there anything you guys over the next six or nine or 10 to 12 months are saying, 'Here's how we are going to advance this?'

Milkman: We have a new chairman as of the beginning of November and one of the things he's pioneering now is communicating in a way we haven't done as much before by doing more blogs and saying, 'Here's what's important to me. I'm laying out the principles of how I think about things and how the agency is going to look at various issues, and here's what we will be doing stepwise over the next 6-to-12 months.' So that everyone knows what they are shooting for and where they need to provide input.

Focarino: It's about constantly listening to employees and creating different ways that they can give that input, whether it's blogs and being able to comment on blogs, or town hall meetings or focus sessions or tweets or just showing up at events and letting employees know the leadership team is accessible, is listening and will react to input and needs input. It's that constant, constant two-way dialogue, and being very transparent about what we are doing and how the employees are really such a critical part of that because they know best of what needs to change.

WFED: When you look forward over the next six months, over the next year, is there anything that PTO is doing specifically to say 'Here's how we are going to extend this engagement, here's how we will do more,' whether it's for employees or manager or both?

Focarino: I think we will continue with our very heavy focus of getting employee input, whether it's through Ideascale and letting employees vote to prioritize things they want management to explore and look into, or having more town halls and keeping an analysis of the Employee Viewpoint Survey data going. And we will continue to look for areas we need to improve.

Lightfoot: Well, the first thing we will do is take these results and we'll peel them back. That's what we did last year. We'll start looking at the areas where we could see some improvement. The other thing is to continue to emphasize the mission we have. We have people in space we need to take care of. We are doing great science. We are doing great work in the aeronautics and technology fields as well. That's what gets our teams going. As long as I get that good work, they'll be tied to the mission. But in the meantime, we will go dig into those results and we'll find out, there's probably some good areas for us to work on for the next year. We'll see what they are, and that's what we did last year, and move forward from there.

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