Communication, leadership make the best agencies run

Tuesday - 9/7/2010, 7:05am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Federal Communications Commission instituted an employee feedback mechanism called Reboot to fix some of its long-standing challenges.

The Smithsonian Institution holds all-hands meetings monthly with the secretary, which also are Webcast, to ensure the agency's direction is clear to the employees.

And the General Services Administration is taking a top-down approach to communication. Agency leaders are reaching out to employees through words, pictures and other social media to ensure there is alignment between mission and goals across the agency.

These three agencies are just a few examples of what it takes to be among the best agencies to work for in the federal government. The Partnership for Public Service issued its annual report Aug. 31 ranking 32 large agencies and 34 small ones.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Government Accountability Office received the highest ratings. While the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Archives and Records Administration were rated the worst agencies to work for.

Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, said the agency was thrilled to be ranked fourth, and attributed part of the reason for the ranking to the type of work employees do for the Smithsonian. This was the first time the Smithsonian participated in the survey.

But she also said the Smithsonian, like the GSA and the FCC, has been focusing on making sure its employees truly feel like they are making a difference in the agency and understand its direction.

"We have monthly all staff meetings that started about a year ago and this was the first time we had all staff meetings," she said. "It's totally optional, but they usually fill the auditorium. The secretary talks about where Smithsonian is going and where do the employees' work fit in."

She added that secretary's speeches also are available to watch via Webcast for employees that can't make it to headquarters.

At the FCC, it launched the Reboot effort more than a year ago. The FCC ranked 21st of all small agencies overall, but saw a 23.6 percent increase in overall satisfaction, the second highest uptick among all agencies.

Steven VanRoekel, the FCC's managing director, said Reboot has given employees ownership of the ideas to improve the agency.

"The theme is to create the FCC into a model of excellence," he said. "It has allowed management to help prioritize ideas."

VanRoekel said employee ideas run the gamut from healthier snacks in vending machines to ways to fix the legislative process to reducing the amount of paper the FCC uses as part of an effort to green the agency.

"We created a green task force and they recommended we move our fleet of vehicles to hybrids," he said. "A lot of agencies you see have a comment box, but there is a way to bridge that in to not only allowing feedback, but also using new technology, such as Web 2.0, to allow employees to give feedback. You can change the culture where employees have ownership of the ideas especially when things are generated from the employee base around reforming and improving the agency."

VanRoekel said the Reboot approach has attracted about 10 other agencies who have asked the FCC for more information, and four of them have begun implementing the methodology.

GSA Administrator Martha Johnson said her agency is focusing on both leadership and communication. GSA ranked 8th among large agencies as its rating increased by 3.4 points over 2009.

"We want to communicate more clearly and not just with words, but pictures too," she said. "We see communication in a number of different ways both in the channel and the audience. It is also about having a clear strategy that doesn't shift all around. People can get it, know it and work to it. I'm keeping our strategy static so we don't need to revisit it every year and can work toward it."

Johnson said to work toward a strategy is starts with GSA's leadership.

The agency is spending a lot time ensuring its senior managers understand the path GSA is taking to meet its goals and can communicate it clearly to employees.

"We need to be sure to be nurturing effective leaders," she said. "I call it in the performance plan leaders growing leaders and it's one of the categories I'm measuring senior staff on."

Johnson said GSA has been developing leadership programs, including creating strategic directions during an off-site meeting, simplifying and clarifying performance plans down to one page and instituting a peer bonus award where the leaders are watching each other and giving each other feedback in the form of bonus money.