VA makes gains in engagement in Best Places to Work results

VA raised its engagement and satisfaction score by 3.4 points, and maintained its fifth place spot for large agencies in the 2023 Best Places to Work rankings.

When it comes to federal employee engagement, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been trying to flip around the narrative. In some areas, it’s starting to pay off.

VA maintained its fifth-place spot for large agencies in the 2023 Best Places to Work rankings, which the Partnership for Public Service published earlier this week. At the same time, VA raised its engagement and satisfaction score by 3.4 points, going from 68.4, up to 71.8 out of 100. It’s the largest year-over-year increase of the top five agencies in the rankings.

At a Best Places to Work event on Monday, VA Chief of Staff Kimberly Jackson said a lot of the score-improving efforts revolve around transparency — both in the work VA does, as well as transparency between employees and agency leaders.

“VA hasn’t historically had a reputation for being the most innovative and doing a lot of the coolest new things,” Jackson said in an interview with Federal News Network at the May 20 event. “We actually are. We do some really, really interesting research, for example, the work that we’re doing in psychedelics research. [We are trying to] leverage that and say, ‘Hey, you want to do really cool work that has immediate impact for a massive population of people? Come to VA.’”

VA’s engagement and satisfaction score has remained above the governmentwide average since 2020, the Partnership’s data showed. While VA ranked fifth overall for large agencies, Chief Human Capital Officer Tracey Therit said she was also particularly excited about VA ranking third for employees’ views of senior agency leadership. In the 2023 results, VA’s senior leadership score increased from 59.9 to 65.3 — a 5.4-point increase in just one year.

“Employees feel like they are more satisfied, more engaged when they know that senior leadership is asking for their input, and when they’re using that input in decision-making,” Therit told Federal News Network at the Best Places to Work event.

Smaller efforts can often make a big difference in views of senior leadership. For example, Therit said, VA’s “I CARE” awards, which Secretary Denis McDonough hands out each year, play a role in demonstrating senior leadership’s attention to the workforce.

“We always want to make sure that we’re recognizing employees for those values and core characteristics they demonstrate every day,” Therit said.

The Partnership’s findings, more broadly, showed many employees’ views of senior leaders are on an upward climb as well. In the 2023 Best Places to Work rankings, the governmentwide score for senior leaders was 57.3 out of 100, representing a 2-point increase since last year’s results.

The Best Places to Work rankings are largely based on data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). But in addition to FEVS, Therit said VA uses several other data sources to understand, and respond to, employees’ concerns. Internal quarterly pulse surveys on employee trust, as well as an annual “all employee” survey, which the VA’s National Center for Organization Development runs, provide more specifics.

Last year’s “all employee” survey received over an 80% response rate, and this year’s version of the VA survey is currently out in the field.

“We want to make sure we continue to get a good response rate so that that data comes in,” Therit said. “We can use that data to make improvements and to know what our employees’ sentiments are.”

But on average, there are specific sectors of the federal workforce who are struggling more than others. The Partnership’s Best Places to Work data analysis showed that feds ages 30 to 39 scored the lowest of any age group for their views on senior leadership, workplace recognition, work-life balance and professional development. On diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, employees with disabilities and LGBTQ employees scored their agencies the lowest.

In reaction to the Partnership’s data, Therit said she plans to take a microscope to those cross-sections of employees.

“We’re really going to look at those demographic populations to make sure what we’re doing with our policies and our programs meets their needs and continues to engage those segments of our workforce,” Therit said.

One area of the workforce where VA is already focusing is on military spouses. The group of workers maintains one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, around 22%. Therit said right now, VA is partnering with the Office of Personnel Management to collect and analyze workforce data specifically on VA employees who are military spouses.

In the coming months, Therit said she hopes the collaboration with OPM will help her team better understand the recruitment and retention challenges specific to that segment of the workforce.

“We’re really excited,” Therit said. “Our survey data is expected to come out in July, so we’ll be able to use it between now and the end of the year to both make sure employees know their voices were heard, and to make some meaningful improvements.”

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