Agencies score high marks from employees on handling of pandemic, but leadership issues persist

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Federal agencies received overwhelmingly positive feedback on their handling of the pandemic in 2020, but leaders still have much work to do to earn their employee’s confidence. That’s according to this year’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

The Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group released their annual rankings using questions from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The organizations noted that they adopted a new methodology for this year’s rankings due to changes in the FEVS, which meant numbers from 2019 were recalculated for accurate comparison. Overall, agencies saw a 3.9-point increase in employee engagement scores to 69 out of 100. This year’s rankings looked at 17 large agencies, 25 midsize agencies, 29 small agencies and 411 agency subcomponents with scores on a scale of 0-100 points.

COVID-19 was a big part of this year’s rankings. Employees collectively scored agencies 86.1 points for the support they received during the pandemic and their work units’ ability to deliver on missions. This suggests that most agency managers overcame the challenges posed by the global crisis, with 85.4% of employees reporting that they “achieved our goals” during most of that time.

Asked if agencies supported their mental and physical health, communicated with them effectively and provided them the tools they needed to get their work done, employees gave collective scores of 88.6 points, 81.4 points and 88.6 points, respectively.

“Through the highs and lows, one constant was the agility and resilience of career government employees. It is a reminder of the stakes if we fail to invest in our federal workforce and create an environment for them to succeed,” said Danny Werfel, North America Public Sector Leader for Boston Consulting Group.

Despite the positive outlook on the handling of the pandemic, the effective leadership category told a different story. The governmentwide score for the effective leadership workplace category came in at 64.2 points, with senior leaders coming in at just 57.8 points. Federal employees also gave leadership a score of just 57.9 points for satisfaction with their involvement in decisions that impact their work.

Looking closer at the data

Individual agency scores also told an interesting story. The Office of Management and Budget had the most glaring results; in 2019 the agency ranked sixth among 29 small agencies but in 2020 dropped by 21.7 points — to last place — with a score of just 54.6. On the other end of the spectrum was OMB’s Capitol Hill counterpart, the Congressional Budget Office, ranking highest among small agencies with a score of 92.8 points. Rounding out the rest of the top five small agencies is the Office of Special Counsel (86.5), the U.S. International Trade Commission (86.4), the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (86.1) and the Farm Credit Administration (86).

Among midsize agencies, the Government Accountability Office ranked highest with a score of 89.4, edging out the Federal Trade Commission at a score of 89.1. The rest of the top five includes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (87.2), the Securities and Exchange Commission (85.7) and the National Science Foundation (84.2).

In maybe the least surprising result, NASA continued its domination among large agencies, ranking highest for the ninth year in a row with a score of 86.6 points — a 5.1 point increase from 2019. Rounding out the rest of the top five is the Intelligence Community with 76.7 points, followed by the Transportation Department (76.1), the Department of Health and Human Services (75.3) and the Commerce Department (74.9). 

Meanwhile, last among large agencies for a ninth straight year was the Department of Homeland Security — despite improving by 8.8 points from 2019 — with a score of 61.1. Its subcomponent U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services moved from the top quartile of all agency subcomponents in 2019 to the bottom quartile, dropping by 10 points for a score of 62.9. Other areas of DHS did see positive results: The Transportation Security Administration improved by 8.8 points, the Secret Service improved by 9.2 points, Immigration and Customs Enforcement improved by 10.6 points and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency jumped 13.8 points since 2019.

In fact, the two highest overall scores came in the agency subcomponent category: The Tennessee Valley Authority Office of Inspector General scored top honors with 96.2 points, followed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of the General Counsel with 94.8 points.

Agencies on the frontlines of the pandemic notably saw increases. The National Institutes of Health improved from 75.7 points in 2019 to 81.7 points in 2020, the Food and Drug Administration increased from 74.6 to 79.8 points and the Federal Emergency Management Agency earned 66.9 points in 2020 compared to 57.1 points in 2019. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decreased slightly to 72.4 points in 2020 versus 73.9 points in 2019.

Private sector still pulls ahead

Despite slight improvements overall, the federal government still lags behind the private sector, which scored a 77-out-of-100 employee engagement score in 2020, according to data provided by employee research firm Mercer. Of the 71 agencies included in the Best Places to Work rankings, only 22 managed to score above the private sector. But on a positive note, 67% of federal employees said they were satisfied with their pay, compared to just 54% in the private sector.

“The 2020 data makes clear that the federal government still has a lot of work to do to improve its competitiveness with the private sector as an employer of choice. The government must strive to meet or exceed the private sector when it comes to employee engagement,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

You can check out the release event courtesy of the Partnership for Public Service below:

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