In a year when many agencies lost ground regarding employee job satisfaction and commitment, the Department of Transportation (DOT) made important gains.
The DOT registered the largest improvement in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings for large agencies, a distinction that it also earned in 2010. It achieved this success by advancing in the areas of employee empowerment, the balance between work and personal life, and opportunities for training and development.
The DOT raised its Best Places to Work satisfaction and commitment score by 4.1 points in 2012, from 59.5 in 2011 to 63.6. Government-wide, the Best Places to Work score declined by 3.2 points compared to 2011.
Chief Human Capital Officer Brodi Fontenot said DOT Secretary Ray LaHood has made it a personal mission to improve the agency’s Best Places to Work scores, using the ratings as a tool for change.
“It can’t be a one-time thing,” Fontenot said. “It has to be a continuous process, and it has to be framed in the context of making our organization a better place to work. That can’t be said enough.”
That philosophy has been expressed to employees in listening sessions, in emails from the senior leaders of DOT’s many administrations and from the secretary himself. Most importantly, the changes resulting from the employee feedback have been communicated to the workers.
“We can put gold in the basement of our building here, but if no one knows it, it’s the same value it was before,” Fontenot said.
After improving its Best Places to Work score by 8.2 points in 2010, the department was not content, and added its own questions to the OPM survey that were specific to the agency so they could concentrate on areas where it wasn’t improving, said Fontenot.
From those questions, the agency determined that beyond leadership and communication, employees wanted improvements in their work processes. The secretary asked that senior leaders encourage feedback by conveying that they heard this message. The secretary’s office collected the lists and with input from each operating administration, made changes to meet employee needs.
For example, employees found it difficult to schedule conference rooms because they couldn’t easily determine availability. A change was made so they can look up online what rooms are open and schedule them, a process improvement that is helping to enhance productivity and make life easier for employees, Fontenot said.
DOT continues to run IdeaHub, launched in 2010, an online community for the agency’s 55,000 employees to submit and collaborate on ideas for driving innovation and facilitating change. When the ideas are vetted and changes are made or rejected, the decisions are communicated online to everyone as well as directly to the employees who submitted ideas. “We’re continually engaging all the time,” said Fontenot.
The department also provides training for first-line supervisors in the core competencies of effective leadership, empowerment, employee engagement and ethics, and has included an employee satisfaction goal in all career and non-career Senior Executive Service (SES) performance plans.
With operating administrations ranging from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Federal Railroad Administration and the Maritime Administration, DOT’s mission is to ensure a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets the national interest.
The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) was the most improved mid-size agency in the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, raising its employee job satisfaction score at a time when many other agencies faltered.
Ranked 6th out of 22 mid-size agencies, the NCUA increased its Best Places to Work score from 68.1 out of 100 in 2011 to 71.0 in 2012 and registered gains in an array of workplace categories.
On the issue of effective leadership, a primary factor in employee attitudes toward job satisfaction, the NCUA score went up 5.3 points. Within this category, senior leaders drew the biggest increase, up 7.3 points to a score of 58.9. Since 2009, employee views of their senior leaders have increased 22.8 points. In addition, the agency increased its scores in the leadership category for direct supervisors and on the issues of empowerment and workplace fairness.
NCUA employees also gave higher marks on work/life balance issues and support for diversity. The one area of decline was pay, with employees registering a decrease in satisfaction of 4.4 points, a trend that took place across the government.
A NCUA spokeswoman said Chairman Debbie Matz set a goal for the agency to be “an employer of choice and reliable partner with elected labor representatives, understanding that employees are our most important asset.”
The spokeswoman said a concerted effort has been made to let employees know that management wanted to hear and respond to their concerns. She said all managers were told they would be held accountable for improving communications with their direct reports.
As part of this initiative, Matz traveled to every NCUA office and met with employees. She also has held quarterly webinars so employees could express their concerns and get direct answers to their questions. During the webinars, for example, agency leaders learned that NCUA’s testing procedures were holding back qualified examiners from becoming principal examiners. In response, the NCUA made several changes to improve the principal examiners’ test procedures, to ensure consistency and fairness in the test administration.
The agency started a weekly email newsletter to address concerns from employees that they were not privy to information about newly hired workers, staffing changes and other internal matters that occur on a week-to-week basis. In another case, union officials were consulted about workspace renovations to ensure the views of employees were incorporated into the plans.
And in response to the federal pay freeze, the NCUA board approved an enhanced benefits package for all employees including a 401(K) plan to supplement the defined contribution retirement savings plan for federal employees. In addition, all employees became eligible to receive compensation to defray the costs of medical, dental and vision insurance.
The NCUA is the independent federal agency created by Congress to regulate, charter and supervise federal credit unions. NCUA operates and manages the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, insuring the deposits of more than 93 million account holders in all federal credit unions and the overwhelming majority of state-chartered credit unions.
After experiencing a steady drop in employee satisfaction and commitment starting in 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is turning the corner, registering gains in strategic management, training and development, and other categories that are part of the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings.
Although the SEC’s overall employee job satisfaction and commitment score decreased 2.3 points to 56 out of 100 this year, the agency has instituted a number of programs to address workplace concerns.
Some of these efforts are already paying dividends, with a 5.0 point increase in the score that measures employee’s views of the agency’s strategic management approach, a 5.5 point jump in worker perceptions of training and development opportunities and a 3.3 point rise in the performance based reward and advancement category. The agency also showed a 1.0 point increase in employee perceptions of leadership, including a 2.4 point increase regarding direct supervisors and a 1.5 point rise for senior leaders.
Lacey Dingman, the SEC’s chief human capital officer, said “employees register strong identification with the agency’s mission and a strong sense of the importance of their work.”
She said the efforts to improve employee job satisfaction have been occurring at a time when the agency is in the middle of hiring 800 employees to help enforce the new financial regulatory law and to keep up with increased demands. As part of this process, Dingman said, the SEC has placed a focus on ensuring that the recruitment and hiring has been targeted to those who have the right skills to do the work, and are provided with the support they need when they are brought on board.
Dingman said the SEC saw increases in their survey scores in the areas where it has devoted additional resources, although she acknowledged the agency still has much work to do. The SEC’s 2005 employee job satisfaction and commitment score stood at 73.1 in 2005, 17.1 points higher than today.
In an effort to change course, the agency created SEC University in 2010 to support training for employees directly involved in examinations, investigations, fraud detection, litigation and other responsibilities. This has provided employees the opportunity to expand their expertise and skills as they relate to the new requirements imposed by the Wall Street financial reform law.
In addition, the SEC created a new evidence based performance management system for non-supervisory personnel in 2010. Dingman said the system requires employees and managers to meet at least three times a year to engage in conversation about career development. The agency also will be working over the course of the next year in coordination with the National Treasury Employees Union representatives to develop a new compensation system that will allow for pay to be tied to the performance management system.
The SEC is a financial regulatory agency with the mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation. The SEC oversees securities exchanges, securities brokers and dealers, investment advisors, and mutual funds, and is responsible for enforcing the federal securities laws.
For the second year in a row, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) tallied the lowest employee satisfaction and commitment score of any federal agency surveyed as part of the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, registering declines in leadership and numerous other indicators used to measure the health of the workplace.
The USTR ranked last among small agencies regarding overall worker satisfaction, continuing a steep slide that began in 2009. In 2012, the USTR employee satisfaction score was 32.7 out of 100, a 15-point drop from the 2011 score of 47.7. Since 2010, the agency’s job satisfaction score has plummeted 24.7 points.
Employee ratings for effective leadership were the lowest of any agency surveyed, with a score of 35.7 out of 100. Workers gave their senior leaders, a component of the effective leadership category, a score of only 18.6. This was the lowest score for senior leadership of any agency in the rankings, and represented a drop of 18.9 points from 2011. In response to the survey question, “Leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce,” the score was just 12 out of 100. The agency also recorded sizable declines in the leadership categories of fairness (32.7 out of 100) and empowerment (35.5 out of 100).
The USTR, which negotiates trade agreements with foreign governments, resolves disputes and participates in global trade discussions, also was the lowest scoring small agency on the issue of work/life balance, recording a satisfaction score of 36.4 out of 100.
The trade agency, in addition, received low marks in the workplace categories of training and development, performance-based awards and advancement, and pay, which had a 10.6-point drop from 2011. When employees were asked how satisfied they were with the training they receive for their present job, they offered a response of just 11.6 out of 100. And on the question of whether they were satisfied with opportunities to get a better job in the organization, the score was 17.9 out of 100.
A USTR spokeswoman acknowledged problems, but said “senior leaders are continuing to seek and act upon feedback on ways to provide this agency’s elite and deserving team of public servants with the support their service merits.”
Efforts have included an employee town hall meeting with the head of the agency, Ron Kirk; the creation of an anonymous suggestion box for employees to offer feedback; and the approval of new training opportunities for USTR employees, including support staff. In addition, the agency promoted a number of experienced career staff, has been working on a leadership development plan for deputy assistant trade representatives and is planning to provide negotiating skills training to mission-critical employees.
The spokeswoman said that despite the workplace issues, the agency has made great strides fulfilling its mission.
“This year, USTR’s staff has made incredible gains for American workers and businesses in a dynamic global trade environment that has demanded more and more of them, both in market-opening negotiations and enforcement efforts, in a time of continuing tight budgets and other resource challenges,’ said the spokeswoman.
Amid a government-wide pay freeze, hiring slowdowns, buyouts, increased retirements and budget constraints, federal employee job satisfaction and commitment took a big hit, dropping 3.2 points across government in the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) experienced an even steeper decline, dropping 7.1 points since last year, the largest decline in the large agency grouping.
VA, the agency responsible for administering health care, pensions, benefits and employment programs for veterans and their families, and operating the veterans hospital system and national cemeteries, had a Best Places to Work score of 56.7 out of 100 in 2012 compared to 63.8 in 2011. On the issue of senior leaders, VA’s score slipped by 6.1 points, also the biggest drop among the large agencies in the rankings.
VA officials said they intend to respond to the disappointing findings by more actively engaging employees, soliciting their feedback on workplace issues and getting them involved to a greater degree in the solutions, to improve the work environment and ensure that there are improved outcomes for VA patients and beneficiaries. They also said there will be efforts to create more management accountability regarding employee job satisfaction and commitment.
One VA official in charge of human capital planning noted that VA has invested resources during the past few years on human capital initiatives and is continuing to address survey results with programs aimed at improving satisfaction. For example, he said, VA is one of several agencies in the midst of a pilot program called GEAR—goals, engagement, accountability and results—intended to build a culture of continuous feedback between supervisors and employees. Under another program, called “MyCareer@VA,” employees can identify career-enhancing learning, training and developmental experiences associated with mission-critical occupations. VA also has an innovative childcare subsidy program and has increased opportunities for telework and flex time.
The only subcomponent that experienced an increase in job satisfaction and commitment levels was the VA’s Office of Inspector General, which ranked 23 out of 292 subcomponents, rising 5.9 points to a score of 72.6. VA’s other subcomponents all had lower scores, with the biggest drop of 8.4 at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The VBA drop coincides with an increase in caseloads and a significant claims backlog. “Process improvements were initiated and we’re starting to see progress” the official said.
In an effort to bring job satisfaction levels up, VA is running or considering several programs for employees and managers to enhance the skills of supervisors and to create a culture that is more supportive of creativity and innovation. The idea is to find the best practices and apply them systematically throughout the department, the official noted.
He also said the agency is considering social contracts—voluntary agreements that would give greater clarity about workplace expectations and would play a key role in how managers give feedback and guidance to employees and how they can serve as mentors. The official said the contracts would be formal, written documents with “terms and conditions” for supervisor-employee relationships that might include roles and responsibilities, consequences, rewards and other elements and would be signed by both parties as binding.
In a written statement the agency said, “The Secretary is committed to transforming the department, streamlining our operations, and instilling increased accountability to better serve Veterans and achieve our goals of ending Veteran homelessness, eliminating the claims backlog, and expanding access to earned care and benefits. VA recognizes that driving institutional change is challenging and can significantly impact the workforce.”