Agencies facing reorganization, relocation suffer major drops on Best Places to Work rankings

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Agency reorganizations, relocations and mergers had a noticeable impact on employee engagement and morale in 2019, according to this year’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

The rankings, produced by the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group, show a wide array of story lines. The Partnership uses data from the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results to develop rankings for 17 large agencies, 25 midsize agencies, 28 small agencies and 420 subcomponents.

Overall, employee engagement across government sat at 61.7 points out of 100, dipping just slightly by 0.5 points in 2019. The latest results are a surprising show of resiliency among agencies during a tumultuous year, the Partnership said.

But for some agencies, the turmoil of reorganizations, relocations and proposed mergers was just too much to handle.

“In many instances where you’ve seen significant reform or change — a proposed change [or] reorganization — you’ve seen some significant drops,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “That’s the case for the Corporation for National and Community Service, where they had gone through a major reorganization. It can lead to significant changes in employee engagement.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service took a 27-point nosedive in 2019 for an engagement score of 39.3, according to the rankings.

Other agencies and their subcomponents facing significant reorganizations and relocations experienced similar and drastic declines.

On first glance, it seemed the Office of Personnel Management managed to withstand the uncertainty that came with the Trump administration’s proposed merger with the General Services Administration.

OPM sat in the middle of the pack among 25 other mid-size agencies in 2019, improving its score by nearly two points over the previous year. But a closer look at the agencies’ individual subcomponents reveals a different story.

OPM’s healthcare and insurance organization, which lost its longtime director to retirement this year, fell 12.9 points in 2019. OPM employee services, which handles a variety of governmentwide policymaking activities, dropped by 12.6 points.

The agency’s Office of the Inspector General fell nearly five points, while OPM’s Merit System Accountability and Compliance dropped 33.9 points over the past year.

Employees at all four of these OPM organizations faced uncertainty in 2019 as the Trump administration continued to pursue a proposed merger with GSA. That anxiety, as Federal News Network has previously reported, has plummeted morale and driven top talent from the agency, according to several current and former OPM employees.

Not all OPM organizations experienced such drastic nosedives in employee satisfaction this year. OPM Retirement Services improved by more than three points, and the agency’s fee-for-service HR Solutions shop saw a 1.4-point bump in a positive direction.

The National Background Investigations Bureau, whose employees faced their own degree of uncertainty with their transfer to the Defense Department earlier this year, improved 6.7 points.

Meanwhile, scores for the two research bureaus at the Agriculture Department that have moved to Kansas City this year experienced double-digit decreases.

The Economic Research Service fell 30 points in 2019; the National Institute of Food and Agriculture lost more than 24 points. Both USDA research bureaus sit among the 25-worst agency subcomponents.

USDA as a whole dropped another 2.5 points in 2019, where it sits just above the last-place Department of Homeland Security among very large agencies.

Employees in small organizations often feel change, uncertainty and stress more deeply and personally, said Danny Werfel, managing director and partner for BCG. It’s up to individual leaders to address those changes head-on within their organizations, he added.

“When the leaders are very focused on the health of the organization [they ask], what do we need to do to look inward to improve our abilities and our tools? You feel it very clearly. It has an impact and it inspires you,” Werfel said. “At the same time if you feel like your leaders are not focused on that, they’re focused looking outwardly and not really thinking about how to invest in the organization, you feel that just as viscerally.”

Though DHS itself fell by less than a point in 2019, a few of its own subcomponents saw noticeable  improvements.

The Secret Service continued a multi-year effort and improved its engagement score by nearly nine points in 2019, marking a third consecutive year of progress on the Best Places to Work rankings.

The Coast Guard, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and DHS’ Office of the Secretary also saw improvements in 2019.

At the top of the pack, several large agencies saw sustained improvement and built on their progress from prior years.

NASA, again the number one large agency, marked its eighth consecutive year of improvement on the Best Places to Work rankings. It sat a whole 10 points above the second-ranked agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS rose again in the rankings for its fifth straight year.

Meanwhile, the intelligence community came back in a “big way” in 2019, Stier said, despite several high-profile events involving IC agencies. The intelligence community managed to improve by 3.6 points this year, where it now ranks third.

“It speaks to the leadership of the folks inside the intel community and their focus on creating work environments to allow that mission-driven workforce to do their jobs,” Stier said. “That’s what’s important here, providing opportunities for federal workers to grow and to do what they’re there for, which is serve the public.”