Lessons from the best and not-so-best places to work

They're out: The annual listing of the best places to work in the federal government.

They’re out: The annual listing of the best places to work in the federal government. Compiled each year by the Partnership for Public Service, it’s safe to say managers and line employees alike pore over them. To take a look the rankings and hear how agencies can improve them, Federal Drive Host Tom Temin spoke with the President & CEO of the Partnership, Max Stier.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin  Everyone makes much of the fact that, you know, NASA is always at the top for large agencies. But what do you think that learning is that keeps that agency or any agency in that position for so long?

Max Stier Well, it’s a wonderful question. And if people had slightly longer memories, they would recognize that NASA has been at the top for 12 years, but not forever. And before they were at the top, it was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And the then new leader of NASA, Charlie Bolden, came in and said, why is NRC number one and not us? And he went out and he hired their chief human capital officer, who helped them come to number one. So, the answer is NASA is number one, because it has leaders who actually care and prioritize creating a culture of support for their employees. And they recognize the expertise that exists in the HR profession that helps them get there. I will say that the gap between NASA and number two, I think, is the smallest it’s been, at least in a very long time. So, HHS is on NASA’s tail, and I will say that NASA is not careful and increasing its work. They will be overtaken.

Tom Temin Yes, because NASA’s score did go down a hair, you know. And so, they got to reverse that.

Max Stier Did it did. And here’s the thing. Like across the board the average is went up. And so, to stay even where you are you have to keep getting better.

Tom Temin Right. And this raises the question, you know, Charlie Bolden was the administrator quite a few administrators ago. And yet this high score persists for NASA, which means that maybe the ball can get rolling by senior leadership and the political appointees. But something has to be built into an agency to sustain it.

Max Stier Yes, yes. I think the answer to that is if you get the flywheel moving in the right direction, there is momentum. And there are cultural norms at NASA that are just quite healthy. Know it is not an organization that has very many political appointees at all. So, the broader leadership group is highly committed to creating environments that get the best out of employees. And that matters. You know, an agency that’s at the bottom, it’s hard to turn those around. It’s a lot easier to keep a healthy culture going and growing than it is to bring in an agency that is hurting, to out of the hole that’s been dug.

Tom Temin And if you look at the scores by category from large departments down to component agencies, the smaller the unit that is measured, the wider the range from top to bottom, which to me says that there is an element of locality involved that is one’s particular manager or boss locally in a bureau or an agency or a component is really crucial, which means that senior executive rank and the higher level managerial ranks. That’s the key.

Max Stier Absolutely. And it’s it is fascinating. The differences are more important than the averages. And as you know, you know, in the large agencies you’re talking about averages across, you know, huge populations. What is fascinating is in any given agency, even the ones at the bottom, you’re going to see pretty significant differences between top and bottom within that component of government. And what good leaders would do would be to recognize and learn from the leaders in the places that are doing better, and provide help and support to those that are that are at the bottom, and sometimes hold the leaders accountable all the time, for all the leaders accountable that help them actually improve it to their bottom. So, you look at the, these big agencies and oftentimes they will argue, well, we face, you know, special problems. We mainly are law enforcement. We are this or that. And what’s fascinating, though, is that if you look inside that organization, despite whatever external challenges that are out there, different parts of the agency are able to address those challenges better or worse. And so, you want to learn from better and you want to help the worse.

Tom Temin Yes. I mean, the Army is in the top ten and their score is just about average for the government, but they’re in the top ten of large agencies. And who’s got a tougher job in the world than the US Army. Yeah.

Max Stier And honestly, like they all have their own challenges. And if you pull the Army apart, you will see undoubtedly components that could rival NASA score and components that would be, you know, near bottom if rated against the large agencies. So again, that is where the real learning is. And the opportunity to get better is to use the data not only to understand what’s wrong on a macro level, but to identify the places that are actually working well. And learn the lessons that have enabled those components to succeed despite whatever challenges exist for the whole organization.

Tom Temin We are speaking with Max Stier, president and CEO of the partnership for Public Service. And just briefly review how the numbers are derived. In some level, they’re based on the federal Employee Viewpoint survey scores. Tell us how you arrive at the rankings. Yeah.

Max Stier So it’s interesting, though. You know, these things change the majority of the data we get from the wonderful work that the Office of Personnel Management does through the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. You know, we were able to persuade Congress to pass a law that requires every agency in government to conduct an annual employee survey, and OPM is doing that work across the board. There are some agencies, for example, the VA, that do their own survey, and they provide us that data directly, as do offices that are not covered by the law, like the Gao Government Accountability Office. And we have in this instance, you know, over a million federal employees that are counted in, in our ranking to create the overall ranking. So, it’s a pretty extraordinarily rich data set representing over 500 agencies and subcomponents. And we provide an overall score that’s based on three different questions that are effectively asking what that overall experience is for the employee. And then we look at what we call, you know, workplace categories. So, things like the mission or the leadership of the organization. So, you can look at different components. The survey provides a lot of really interesting information. You can look at different components of the, you know, workplace experience to determine what are the places, again, that are doing well or not. So much so. And what you find are that number one, leadership matters, as does that mission match the sense that you are motivated by the work of your agency, and you can see line of sight between what you do and the overall achievements that are the goal of the agency.

Tom Temin And that underscores the fact that those who lead agencies with very low scores or falling scores. Much as we hate to see that they do have tools to understand the problem because there is so much data, so fine grained data, you can tell which type of employee, which location, employee, which group of employees might be the reason your scores or where they are.

Max Stier You are 100% right. And what’s interesting too, is that in the private sector, where the goals are to achieve better financial return, they use this exact same kind of information to achieve better financial return. You know, any knowledge-based organization, any people-based organization should understand that employee morale is the most important ingredient for improved performance. So, this is not about happy employees. This is about better performing organizations and better mission achievement. There’s lots of interesting, good research in the private sector and increasing research in the public sector that demonstrates this.

Tom Temin All right. So, what happens next? Now that they are announced, there’s going to be a breakfast, you know, celebrating them. What happens do you think what should happen what should the government do with all this.

Max Stier Yes, that’s an excellent question. And number one, we call it best places for a reason. We believe that you actually achieve improved performance faster by focusing on the good than focusing on the bad. There’s a tendency in the government space for everyone to look for what’s broken, rather than what’s there that can fix what’s broken. So, as you noted, we will celebrate the top performers and the large, medium small agencies as well as the subcomponents. And in addition to those that are at the top, also those that are most improved because we think the direction matters. And again, any leader that is able to move their agency up, in a consequential way should be celebrated. To your point about what happens after that? Our hope and expectation is that, you know, good leaders are going to take the data, use it to, help them create better environments for their employees so that they can perform even, even, even with more impact, and that they’ll learn from peers that are doing well, because there are clearly lessons to be learned across the board. And ultimately, we hope that the leadership writ large, i.e., the president of the United States and the Congress, use this information to again celebrate those that are doing well and to call to account those that are, frankly, falling down on the job.

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