2014 Best Places to Work list reflects feds’ sagging morale

It’s hard to smile and easy to grimace at the 2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, just released by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte.

Overall federal employees’ satisfaction on the job has plummeted to the lowest point in the rankings’ 11-year history. An index score, based on employees’ satisfaction and whether they would recommend their organizations as good places to work, came in at 56.9 out of 100 points. The drop reflects feds’ struggles amid last year’s government shutdown, budget constraints, multiyear pay freezes, slowdowns in hiring and management snafus, according to the Partnership’s analysis. But most of all, it points to a decline of faith in senior political and career leaders, the Partnership says.

“Federal employees have raised a number of important concerns that call out for federal leaders to take immediate action to improve government operations,” said Max Stier, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, in a written statement. “The Best Places to Work results also illustrate the need for fundamental management reforms across government to ensure that agencies can effectively meet the needs of the American people.”

The decline runs contrary to a happier trend in the private-sector and could portend more federal employees’ leaving the government for jobs elsewhere. Private-sector employees’ satisfaction has risen steadily since 2012 and now outpaces the federal government by 15 points on the same index scale, according to additional analysis by the Hay Group.

“Sadly, this is unsurprising given the difficult environment federal employees have faced for the past several years,” said National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) National President Colleen M. Kelley, in a press release. “Low morale hurts the current workforce and will also hamper future recruitment efforts by making talented candidates think twice before taking federal jobs. Lack of adequate funding has led to hiring freezes, staffing shortages, growing workloads, cuts in performance-based awards and training, and diminished opportunities for career advancement.”

Graphic: Partnership for Public Service

The lists of 389 large, mid-sized and small agencies and their components are calculated using data from the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which polls federal employees on their attitudes towards their work, colleagues and leaders. This year’s survey reflected federal employees’ growing skepticism of their senior leaders’ abilities and capacities to motivate. Poor showings from large, problem-plagued departments such as Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs also pulled the governmentwide scores down.

Repeat winners continue to shine

The rankings have become a selling point for recruiters at top scorers. In a repeat of last year, NASA continues to lead big agencies this year and even improved its score a smidgen to 74.6 points. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation topped mid-sized agencies, those with between 1,000 and 14,999 employees. The Surface Transportation Board was number one among smaller agencies.

Top 5 Best Places to Work by Agency Size
Large Mid-Size Small Subcomponents
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Surface Transportation Board Office of the General Counsel (FERC)
Commerce Department Government Accountability Office Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Patent and Trademark Office (Commerce)
State Department Smithsonian Institution Peace Corps Environment and Natural Resources Division (Justice)
Intelligence Community Federal Trade Commission National Endowment for the Humanities John C. Stennis Space Center (NASA)
Justice Department Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Federal Labor Relations Authority U.S. Army Audit Agency (Army)

Beyond the top scorers, this year’s list reflects volatility among agencies. Fifty-six percent of agencies and subcomponents fell in the rankings. Just 1 percent of agencies kept their spots. The remaining 43 percent rose on the charts.

A few agencies buck the trend

Several agencies made dramatic progress in an otherwise bleak year. The Partnership for Public Service will honor the Labor Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative as the most improved agencies in their respective categories.

The Labor Department rose from 17th to 10th place in the rankings of large agencies following a 3.1 percent improvement in its score. The State Department had the second-biggest increase among large agencies, rising to the third spot overall.

While USTR improved its score by a dramatic 19.1 points, it ranked 25 among 30 small agencies.

On the “needs improvement” list

Homeland Security is the worst big agency this year, coming in at 44 points. The far-flung department, with 22 separate components, has had trouble plugging holes in its leadership ranks. It has faced scandals in the Secret Service and Border Patrol and high-level pressure to carry out controversial immigration policies. Secretary Jeh Johnson has pledged to address employees’ concerns through a new “unity of effort” initiative, which includes internal awards programs.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors dropped 5.3 points, hovering just above the Department of Housing and Urban Development at the bottom of the mid-sized category. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission had the largest decline of any small agency, 14.3 points. It ranked fourth to last of the small agencies, besting the Federal Maritime Commission, the Federal Election Commission and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

“Budget cuts, sequestration, the government shutdown, ongoing fiscal brinksmanship and the gap between federal and private-sector pay are all problems that take a toll on employee morale,” Kelley said. “Employees remain committed to their jobs and are willing to go the extra mile, but they are constantly being asked to do more with less.”

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