Federal Employees News Digest
Annual best places to work report shows improvement in employee engagement across agencies
- By FEND Staff
- Dec 19, 2016
The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte just published their annual Best Places to Work report—and it shows for a second year in a row, employee engagement continues to improve.
The report covers 379 federal agencies and subunit parts of agencies, including 18 large agencies (15,000 employees or more), 27 midsize (1,000 to 14,999), 29 small (100-999) and 305 subcomponents. The new rankings show that federal employee satisfaction, on average, has climbed 1.3 points from last year, to 59.4 out of 100. That’s not near the last peak in federal employee engagement—the all-time high of 65.0 set in 2010—but the direction appears to have momentum behind it.
“The score is an average,” Sean Morris, the federal human capital leader at consulting firm Deloitte, which co-produced the report with PPS. “The survey, by the Office of Personnel Management, doesn’t do the entire population of federal employees—they do a percentage of it, and then they aggregate those scores.” Morris reminded FEND that the key is looking at the employee experience by agency, and—following deeper survey information—how employees view and report the strong and weak points of their agencies, ranging from pay, to effective leadership, to work-life balance, to support for diversity, along with several other factors.
“The point is, we at Deloitte and PPS examine and break down the numbers in a meaningful way.” Morris told FEND. “What do you do with this information, how do you use and build momentum from it [in improving organizations]—that’s what we do for a living here, so co-creating this report is a good space for us to be in.”
What you can do with the survey and the data sorts you do on it is to map an array of high and low points in the federal workplace, with the strengths and problem sets that appear to drive them. The data can provide leaders in government insight, and leverage, into changing things. And that’s what the PPS/Deloitte report sets out to facilitate.
Top agencies, bottom agencies
The survey found that the top five large agencies are, respectively, NASA, Commerce, Intelligence community agencies, State and Health and Human Services. NASA, long a leader in employee engagement in surveys jumped 2.5 points to a score of 78.6.
“NASA does arguably one of the finest jobs in the federal government, remembering that the drivers are leadership, pay and applying skillsets to mission—and they have one of the most unique missions, putting rockets in the sky and people to outer space and planets,” Morris told FEND. “Everybody or almost everybody there does a great job of applying skills to mission on a regular basis. Even though they are partnering more with private organizations, they have not lost their focus—and that’s been critical to their success.”
The lowest performers among the large agencies were the Departments of the Air Force (59.3), Treasury (58.8), Army (57.8), Veterans Affairs (56.7), and finally the Department of Homeland Security with a score of 45.8—a low score indeed, but a bounce of 2.7 points over 2015.
“DHS is up, and that’s massive,” Morris told FEND. “They put a strategy to improve in place, one that was owned at the highest level, by the undersecretary of management there—and they implemented it, which was basically ‘How do I communicate to the broad populations of this department?’”
“At some large orgs in DHS, engagement numbers were way up,” Morris continued, following how the sprawling department got its numbers up. “Customs and Border Protection, up over six points, after the department adjusted its leverage ratios—that is to say, querying how many of their managers could really touch and communicate in an effective way, and moving those ones around to ‘even out’ the leverage ratios.”
Among mid-sized agencies, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation led with a government-wide high of 80.7. Just behind the top agency were Government Accountability Office (79.7), Peace Corps (79.7), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (79.0), and the Federal Trade Commission (78.3). The lowest performers on mid-size agency engagement were the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (59.5), Department of Housing and Urban Development (58.2), National Archives and Records (57.2), Small Business Administration (52.2) and at the very bottom Broadcasting Board of Governors (58.4).
Despite the two years or improvement, Morris sounded a couple of notes of concern regarding the future of engagement.
“Across the federal government, how an agency attracts and keeps millennials is incredibly important, too,” Morris added. “On the whole we see very low numbers in the federal government—still a problem—around 7 percent. How you engage different generations in different ways is a big issue—government agencies need their technical skills.”
A second concern? That of participation rates in the OPM survey itself—a sine qua non of getting good data to guide government leaders on which agencies are getting the drivers of engagement right and which need improvement. The participation rate has dropped off a bit, three points or so, he told FEND.
“We have to concentrate on raising these response rates,” Morris said.
Perennial lag compared with private sector
While the engagement number is improving from a nadir—2011 to 2014, a period of no, or very low, federal pay raises and occasional government shutdowns—employee engagement in the federal government continues to lag far behind that found on average in the private sector. Sirota, an opinion research firm, did a parallel study of private sector workplaces—and at the aggregate level of engagement those organizations did much better.
“The private sector companies, on average, did better,” Morris told FEND. “Their numbers hovered in the mid- to upper-70s.”
An interesting aspect of public-sector engagement index versus the private-sector is that “the private sector doesn’t show nearly the year-to-year variation you see in the public sector, even in recessions,” as Morris noted. “Three issues move the needle in the federal workforce. One is pay. Another is leadership—and its connection with the federal workforce—and this year recall that both supervisors and senior leaders went up on average a point-and-a-half—and that really is this administration shining a light on the importance of engagement, I would argue.”
“One advantage in preventing big fluctuations in the private sector scores is not just that there is much more flexibility on pay, but there is very consistent focus on engagement,” Morris noted. “I’m not sure that’s usually been true in the federal government, but it has been over the last three or four years.” Morris said that emphasis appears to have helped.
“There’s a third factor in employee engagement,” Morris continued. “The tie of skills-to-mission, how those match, is another massive factor.”
Morris noted that how agencies are faring in terms of employee perceptions of these key drivers of engagement—again, those of effective leadership, employee skills-mission match, pay—but also strategic management, innovation and teamwork—are all available in the details of the report, at www.ourpublicservice.org.
Scores of small agencies and hundreds of federal sub-agencies are also described in the online report.