Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Improving your agency's Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ranking

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

I’m a big believer in the old adage, “Everything that needs to be done to improve government is being done somewhere, just not everywhere.” The key, of course, is sharing those lessons across agencies to improve performance government-wide.

Here’s a case in point. A few agencies have seen considerable improvements in the just released 2011 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings by directly addressing employee satisfaction, commitment and performance issues. The rankings, produced by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, are the most comprehensive assessment of federal employee perceptions of their jobs and agencies, and are based on a government-wide survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Organizations struggling to improve their rankings would be wise to understand what successful agencies have done, and then adopt those strategies to build a more engaged and, ultimately, a more effective workforce.

I consulted with my colleague Erika Kaneko, our Best Places to Work agency services manager, on how agencies can make progress in improving their employee satisfaction and commitment. She noted that many of the biggest movers have followed some basic principles. They have engaged employees, managers and union leaders to better understand the story behind their Best Places to Work numbers, and to get feedback and ideas for change. They have followed through with action plans, have monitored progress, and have communicated with employees about what is taking place and the reasons for decisions. In addition, they have celebrated successes and recognized exceptional employees.

As part of the 2011 Best Places to Work rankings, the Partnership interviewed officials at agencies that increased their scores over last year. In talking with those agencies, we’ve collected some lessons learned that may benefit agencies still looking to move on up the rankings.

  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) – The FDIC rose to the No. 1 spot as a result of instituting a series of cultural change initiatives three years ago. The FDIC devoted time, energy and resources to supporting employees and creating a positive work environment even in the midst of the financial crisis. The agency leaders communicated the importance of employee engagement, held regular town hall meetings and conference calls with employees to open lines of communication, and invested in training for front-line employees while also investing in their own continuous learning as leaders. In an effort to develop new ideas over time, they appointed a manager to coordinate cultural change initiatives and created a culture change council with responsibility for proposing workplace improvements.
  • OPM – To improve employee engagement, OPM’s top leaders made it clear that the agency’s senior executives, human resource leaders and office supervisors would be held accountable for their survey results. Teams analyzed their survey data and came up with plans to address problem areas. In addition, OPM’s Director John Berry convened free-flowing town hall meetings every month to solicit employees’ ideas from across the agency. In response, OPM increased its investment in employee training and the use of telework. It revamped employee awards programs, making the process more open and employee driven. In addition, OPM instituted Idea Factory – an innovation process and tool developed with much success by the Transportation Security Administration to provide an ongoing forum for employee-driven ideas about improving the agency.
  • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) – PTO Director Dave Kappos made workplace improvements a top priority. The PTO reengineered the patent examination system with input from employees, the union, managers and stakeholders to increase productivity. It initiated a series of training programs. One helped patent examiners better understand new technologies. Other programs focused on developing leaders – starting with top managers – all of whom must create executive development plans and chart their progress against those plans.
  • Department of Treasury – Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) – While the Treasury launched several department-wide initiatives to improve performance, there were particular bright spots in components like the BEP. Department-wide, Treasury began embedding workplace goals into all of the senior leaders’ performance plans. In addition to those efforts, the BEP went a step farther when senior executives launched a “Walking in Your Shoes” program that involves spending a day doing line work in the printing plants to better understand the nature and stresses of the jobs, and to get suggestions on ways to improve the workplace.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Nov 16, 2011 at 4:02 PM

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