Thoughts on the just-out Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings: All in all, the Best Places to Work rankings are a downer this year, with averages falling across the board in 2021 versus 2020. Yes, 2020 — the year of the pandemic slam, the Lord-knows-if-I’ll-live-or-die year, the hideous politics — produced better employee satisfaction than 2021, the year of vaccines and people starting to get together again and return to their offices.
The Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group, which compile the rankings, cite that very fact. The rate of telework dropped in 2021, but the drop was accompanied by a distinct rise in uncertainty over what management expected employees to do. That uncertainty lives on, but at many agencies, it appears to have settled into a default of two or three days in, two or three days at home. For whatever reason, the average fell a statistically-significant 4.5%, the worst drop ever.
The Partnership’s and BCG’s stab at establishing why things went down overall certainly points to part of the picture. But I also think it’s risky to pick out one variable and attribute the change to it. After all, didn’t employers across the economy face the same issues? Yes, but an independent, and therefore not directly comparable, study shows average job satisfaction in the private sector way ahead of the government.
Averages, in my view, tell you everything and nothing at the same time. There’s an old joke: If one foot is encased in dry ice and the other in a pot of boiling oil, on average you feel great. It’s the movement of averages over time that tell a story. While the governmentwide average is down, many agencies did well and improved their scores. Veterans Affairs moved to the top 5 rankings of large agencies. That might’ve been more because the lake level fell and VA’s rock poked through the surface.
Still, the agency ranked above average and made a slight improvement. I say good for VA. Considering the often contentious labor relations there, the ongoing fights over whether community care is “privatizing” VA, the new electronic health record fiasco, and the sheer opportunity for errors and scandal in an organization that far flung, its scores are remarkable. More so when you consider its expanded, statutory duties to help public health in general during emergencies.
Ultimately, the govermentwide average moves only as a result of what happens at the department, agency, bureau and workgroup levels. What VA does can’t have any effect on DHS scores. Engagement scores are all local.
A telling statistic, or a few statistics, point to the quality of leadership and management as the main driver of employee satisfaction and commitment. Workgroup performance perception outscores that of agency or department performance. Especially in large organizations, it’s possible to have a great supervisor or unit executive even in an overall questionable organization. Throughout low-ranking Homeland Security, for instance, you find people who love their work and are highly dedicated to it.
I’m always struck at how the rankings come out in the midst of what I call my Sammies Season, the months in which the Federal Drive airs weekly interviews I do of Service to America Medals finalists. Like, for instance, the State Department pair that took on the Afghanistan refugee task. Their energy and dedication are remarkable, in a department with decidedly mediocre average scores.
Yet the people at the top set the tone. It makes you wonder, how could an agency like the Federal Trade Commission endure a satisfaction index crash of nearly 25 points, taking it from the top of the list of mid-sized agencies to 22nd out of 24? Memo to Lina Khan: Your house is on fire.
Always remarkable is the Government Accountability Office, where Comptroller General Gene Dodaro is not quite 12 years into a 15-year term appointment. He volunteers GAO, a congressional agency, to get ranked in Best Place to Work, whith is otherwise all executive branch agencies. GAO tops the list of mid-sized agencies, as it did last year.
With 49 years at GAO, Dodaro has been working four years longer than I have, and he’s four years older. Now, this year’s analysis shows greatest satisfaction among the over-60 (and presumably including the way over 60) crowd. Those in the 30-39 years old cohort have the weakest connection to federal employment. But the practice at Dodaro’s GAO is to constantly promote people to the director level, where they supervise staff oversight in various domains like acquisition, defense or health care issues.
Having interviewed GAO people weekly on the ever-flowing reports for many years, I’ve literally witnessed a whole generation of youngish analysts move up to the director level. I’ve inducted many of them personally into the world of broadcast interviews. At the rankings reveal breakfast the other day at the National Press Club, Dodaro noted to me with pride how he’s brought up that generation.
For some agencies, there’s nowhere to go but up. The other day the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons got a new director. The bureau operates a string of inverse Disneylands, the most miserable places. Staffing shortages and scandals have plagued the place, leading to the resignation of the current director. Attorney General Merrick Garland picked Collette Peters to come over from the top corrections job in Oregon. The troubled bureau ranks 431 out of 432 agency subcomponents, with an overall employee satisfaction score of 40.8, down form 55.1 last year. Good luck, Ms. Peters.