Having best places to work means the government has worst places

Worst places to work in the federal government show the erosive qualities of underfunding and understaffing. Leaders have to get up on their hind legs.

The Social Security Administration, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, the Export-Import Bank and the Bureau of Prisons have something in common. They are the lowest ranked federal places to work in their respective categories. You could call them the worst places to work in the federal government.

The low coefficient of engagement employees have with their agencies stems from many possible factors. Top among them: leadership, functional performance, work environment. The low scores don’t necessarily mean employees hate the agency or working there.

As aside, it could. Ranked just above the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency lies the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Lurid stories of an environment of sexual harassment and a hot-tempered yet oblivious chairman have engulfed the agency. Even when an apparently toxic leader agrees to quit, it’s not until the Senate confirms a successor, which means employees could be stuck with him for another year. Hardly a recipe for improving an employee engagement index of 62 — down four points from last year.

At the Social Security Administration, a combination of workload, dated business processes and technical debt lead to overworked people and bad customer service. That’s according to Dustin Brown, who just joined SSA as chief operating officer. He left the Office of Management and Budget, where he’d spent 23 years.

In a forthcoming interview, Brown said the 2025 appropriation request will be crucial to improving staffing levels and technology support. The agency has requested an 8% boost. Officials want to improve basics like telephone query wait times and resolution rates. He said that two mornings a week, Commissioner Martin O’Malley holds “security stat” meetings to review performance metrics. O’Malley used that technique as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. Brown said detailed data and line employee input both inform decisions.

The ‘Commish’ named three priorities, Brown said: Reducing phone call wait times, speeding up disability claim and appeal processing, and fixing chronic problems with over- or underpaying benefits.

Brown called O’Malley a hero in the performance management community. By coincidence, that phrase came up in my interview with Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service.  Stier said this of the places-to-work scores:  “This is about better performing organizations and better mission achievement.”

Becoming a good place to work, then, requires a combination of leadership commitment to it. That and finding the technology and money resources to carry out performance goals. There’s no time to lose when, in some offices, attrition amounts to more than 20% a year.

As someone about to become a Social Security retirement benefits recipient myself, I’ll be watching to see how much the O’Malley-Brown leadership combo raises those scores.

As I covered extensively last year, the Bureau of Prisons had the lowest place-to-work index last year, 35.5. This year it’s a little better, but only to 38.1, putting the bureau again in the unfortunate spot as worst place to work in the federal government. It needs higher pay, more people who stay longer, and a vast improvement program for its crumbling facilities.

One federal observer who is intimately knowledgeable about BOP wondered why Director Colette Peters didn’t insist that the Biden Administration ask for the billions in overdue renovation with a threat to resign otherwise. It’s difficult enough to come to work and mingle closely with dangerous people. It’s another to do so in a leaky, moldy workplace.

In the past year, BOP has closed a couple of prisons, reassigned a couple to different security levels. It hasn’t solved its fundamental staffing and facilities problems.

The great NASA administrator Charles Bolden was determined to put NASA on the path to number one in the Best Places rankings. He still lives in the local area. I’ll bet if Peters rang him up, he’d share his strategy over a cup of coffee.

Nearly Useless Factoid 

By: Michele Sandiford 

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed George N. Peek to head the first and second Export-Import Banks.

Source: EXIM: Export-Import Bank of the United States

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