Leadership, or lack of it, made the difference in 2018 Best Places to Work rankings

High profile leadership shakeups in 2018 trickled down and impacted the day-to-day mood at some federal agencies, and it showed in this year’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings.

Though the Office of Personnel Management reported a slight bump in governmentwide employee engagement at 68 percent in 2018, satisfaction fell this year at 59 percent of federal organizations, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which released the annual Best Places to Work rankings Wednesday morning. About 40 percent of agencies and subcomponents saw a rise in employee engagement in 2018.

It’s a stark contrast to the recent past, when more than 70 percent of federal organizations made improvements over the past three years, according to the Partnership.

“This year’s rankings tell the tale of two governments,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said in a statement. “One part of our government has agencies with committed leaders who are fostering high and improving levels of employee engagement. The other part of our government is handicapped by a lack of leadership that has led to static or declining employee engagement.”

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The 2018 Best Places to Work Rankings, produced by the Partnership and the Boston Consulting Group, paint a different picture — or at least highlight different challenges in keeping the federal workforce engaged with their leadership, colleagues and agency missions — than the main message from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results.

In 2018, there were some notable and significant drops in employee satisfaction, according to the Partnership’s rankings.

The Agriculture Department’s score fell by 6.9 percent. The Education Department saw employee satisfaction drop by more than 12 percent. Though neither USDA nor Education lost their top leaders this year, employees at those agencies saw other workforce changes.

USDA announced controversial changes to its telework program, requiring all employees to work from the office at least four days a week. Education abruptly ended collective bargaining negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees this year and is planning a reorganization of several of its back offices.

Engagement at the State Department, which lost its top leader in 2018, also fell 3.3 percent this year.

At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where leadership shakeups made national headlines, employee satisfaction fell by more than 25 percent.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which also lost its administrator over the past year, saw its score drop six points in 2018. Just 38 percent of EPA employees rated their agency’s senior leaders favorably this year, a 7 percent drop in that category over the previous year, according to the Partnership.

The two agencies that deal with federal employee labor relations saw serious drops in employee satisfaction in 2018. Engagement fell by 31 percent at the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which closed two regional offices in 2018 and still lacks a general counsel. The score at the National Labor Relations Board also fell by 12.6 percent. The Merit Systems Protection Board, which lacks a quorum and faces questions about its future, saw employee satisfaction fall by 4.3 percent.

The Veterans Affairs Department, which experienced its fair of share of high-profile leadership changes and still has several critical spots on the organizational chart vacant, appeared to defy the narrative. VA chose not to participate in the FEVS this year and administered its own survey. VA’s survey did include some of the same questions included in the FEVS, so the department could continue to be a part of the Partnership’s rankings.

VA’s engagement score sat at 64.2 percent in 2018, compared to 56.1 percent during the previous year. The Partnership didn’t make VA eligible to compete for the “most improved” agency and didn’t include its data in the calculation of the 2018 governmentwide score. If it had, VA would likely earn the “most improved” agency title this year.

Still, a handful of agencies, including many large ones, made new or continued improvements on employee engagement in 2018.

The Department of Health and Human Services sits at second place among large agencies. HHS continued its upward trend in 2018 and improved employee satisfaction by another half point.

NASA, for at the least the fourth consecutive year, sits at the top among large agencies. It improved its score slightly in 2018 by 0.3 percent.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has improved its employee engagement by more than 26 points since 2012. It now sits at third place among mid-size agencies on the Partnership’s rankings.

And the Department of Homeland Security, though still last among large agencies, overcame six consecutive years of declining engagement scores and improved for the second consecutive year and saw a 1.1 percent boost in 2018.

The Partnership for Public Service will present the “Best Places to Work” awards at a ceremony in Washington on Wednesday morning. You can find the full 2018 Best Places to Work rankings here.