WASHINGTON—For the fourth consecutive year among the largest federal agencies, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) ranked number one in employee commitment and satisfaction, while during the same period, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ranked last, 19th out of 19.
The determination is based on the Annual Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), administered by the Office of Personnel Management. It enables employees to offer their opinions on engagement, motivation, job satisfaction, and agency leadership. By this tool, NASA is said to be the best place to work in the federal government. No one is exactly saying aloud that DHS is the worst place to work in the federal government, but their scores would seem to indicate a serious morale problem.
On April 27, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing, titled, “The Best and Worst Places to Work in the Federal Government,” to probe into some of the issues that affect federal employee engagement and satisfaction. Testifying were personnel administrators from NASA, DHS, Department of Labor (DOL), and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who each have the identical title, Chief Human Capital Officer. DOL and HUD were specifically invited because as a large and medium-size agency, respectively, they had made the largest improvements in employee satisfaction and engagement.
Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) found much from the 2015 FEVS results to be encouraging, but noted there was a lot of need for improvement. He and ranking member Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) have made several visits to various federal agencies and have discussed worker morale with many federal employees.
The rankings are produced by The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization. “The 2015 rankings reflect the views of more than 433,300 federal employees from 391 agencies and subcomponents,” states Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public, in his written testimony.
Objections of Federal Employees
Stier said, “The [federal] government continued to struggle” to the “extent to which employees feel they are rewarded and promoted in a fair and timely manner for their performance and innovative contributions to the workplace.”
To the question, “Pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs” only 19.2 percent of employees responded positively,” he wrote.
In response to the statement “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve,” only 25.8 percent, responded positively.
Less than half (45.5 percent) of employees believe senior leaders “maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.”
Chairman Meadows also cited the above points but found encouraging other statistics also cited by Stier. The data show that 94.8 percent of employees are willing “to put in the extra effort to get a job done,” and 88.1 percent believe the work they do is important.
Stier said, “These data reinforce the commitment of federal employees to their agency’s mission, but also their dissatisfaction with senior leaders and performance management practices.”
NASA’s Mission Motivates
Representing NASA, Lauren Leo spoke in glowing terms what it is like for her to work at NASA. She said, “I work for an agency that inspires, challenges, and empowers our employees daily to carry out missions that benefit humankind here on earth. What job could be better than that?”
Leo described NASA’s “awesome” mission. “Last year, for example, the entire world watched as New Horizon sent back the first close-up images of Pluto, and we continue make new discoveries about Mars that will help inform human missions there. … The Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch system rocket that will carry us again to deep space continued to reach milestones…
“Given that NASA is strongly mission and project focused, our employees believe in the importance of the mission and are heavily engaged in their work. They come to work at NASA because they want to be part of something bigger, not because it’s a job.”
Leo mentioned NASA’s oldest employee, an 89-year-old engineer, who has worked there for 49 years.
NASA has a unique way of providing incentives to its employees. “While monetary awards are always nice to receive, we have found that recognizing employee creativity and allowing that creativity to be incorporated into one of our exciting missions an amazing incentive for employees,” she said at the hearing.
She said that NASA “empowers its employees to telework whenever possible.” She said that employees don’t always have to be “in the office” to get work done.
Ranking member Connolly wondered how much of NASA’s success can be attributed to its uplifting mission, which the other agencies can’t compete with.
Stier said that he disagreed with Connolly. He felt that NASA’s successes were not due to its missions but rather to its excellent leadership.
Homeland Security Seeking Answers
Unfortunately, the spokesperson for DHS, Angela Bailey, who has only been with DHS since January, could not explain the persistent low rankings of her organization and instead chose to use the bulk of her testimony to describe the difficult missions the organization has to cope with.
Bailey spoke much of the time using in-house conceptualizations and generalities, such as “Department-wide employee engagement action plan,” “leadership development framework,” and “engagement and performance management.” The heavy-laden bureaucratic terminology doesn’t communicate well to the Congressional members and the general public.
Bailey was not alone in using bureaucratic language. HUD representative Towanda Brooks used the term “Deep Dive projects,” in her oral and written testimony, which was not defined even in the written testimony.
One idea Bailey mentioned, however, in her written testimony, had promise. She said, “I was also encouraged to see that two of our components—U.S. Coast Guard, with over 8,000 civilian employees, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with over 14,000 employees—consistently score above the government-wide average on Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) indices. We are looking at their promising practices to see if we can leverage them for Department-wide use.”
Ranking member of the Committee Connolly was sympathetic to the DHS plight, noting its origins and lack of a time to build cohesion.
“We must remember DHS was created under the most intense pressures following 9/11. It combined all or parts of 22 federal agencies under one roof with the incredible difficult mission of protecting the American people from a variety of threats,” he said.
Department of Labor’s Approach
The Department of Labor received recognition for the most improved score for departments and large agencies. In 2015, the Labor Department ranked as the eighth best place to work in the federal government of 19 departments and large agencies, which was a big jump from 17th in 2013.
Secretary Thomas E. Perez, who was confirmed in July 2013, “has made improving employee morale and engagement a top priority, since the minute he arrived at the Department of Labor,” said DOL’s Ms. Sydney Rose.
“He came to the Department with a belief that an engaged workforce is a more productive workforce. Virtually all communications from the Secretary’s Office now reinforce his commitment to, and the importance of, employee feedback,” Rose said at the hearing.
Rose said it was important to strive to implement actions, even those that may not appear to be important. Examples are putting microwaves in the lunch area and increasing signage in the building.
Other programs begun are “greater access to telework and flexible work schedules, a greater use of time-off awards to recognize superior performance, an emergency dependent care back up program, improved accommodations and facilities for nursing mothers, and improved leadership training for managers.”
Federal Employment Lags Behind Private Sector
Stier said that although there was overall much improvement in the 2015 FEVS results, the government “still lags far behind the private sector.” He cited survey research data by the firm Sirota of 1.5 million employees from 115 organizations around the world and across a broad range of industries. Private sector employee satisfaction and commitment were substantially higher than the government.
“The federal government scores well below the private sector on all survey questions that we compared to the private.”
“For example, only 59 percent of government employees say they receive constructive feedback compared with 74 percent of workers in the private sector, a 15-point difference, and only 44.4 percent of federal employees feel recognized for high-quality work, compared to 67 percent of employees in the private sector,” Stier said in his written testimony.
Once again, Rep. Connolly was sympathetic to the federal workers situation. He said they suffered from two sequester cuts by Congress, which caused nearly one million employees to be furloughed for some time, and “the uncertainty and anxiety that created.”
He also mentioned the 16-day shutdown in 2013, “fed pay was frozen for three consecutive years; retirement benefits were reduced for new employees, and training budgets slashed. In all, federal employees were hit by more than $180 billion in compensation cuts.”
Hence, it was not surprising Connolly said that federal workers “were feeling unappreciated and demoralized.”