What exactly does make a good place to work in the government anyhow?

The annual list of best places to work in the federal government is out, looked over, digested. What goes on inside that makes for the best places?

The annual list of best places to work in the federal government is out, looked over, digested. We know the agencies, but what goes on inside that makes for the best, and less-than-best places? To find out, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  talked with long-time federal management observer, union president, and professor Bob Tobias.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Bob, as a student of management yourself, and also a professor of it, let me run this postulate by you. And that is, if you look at the scores, the smaller the unit measured, the wider the scores range. Which I interpret as all management all sense of engagement with your agency is local, with your particular manager and leadership, bureau or officer agency. Fair?

Bob Tobias I think it’s basically fair, Tom. Because really why this whole exercise is so important, is because engagement is so important. The more a leader, at whatever level, is engaged with those lead, the more engaged they are, the more productive they are. And there’s no question about that. The more engaged they are, the more productive they are. So engagement, I believe, is a block by block by block building inside of a larger environment. And if all of those blocks cumulatively are on the right track, you have NASA, you have [Government Accountability Office (GAO)], you have agencies who have a culture of creating engagement between those they lead, and those lead.

Tom Temin And it seems that then the crucial point there is the training and engagement of the line of the supervisors, locally, because secretaries come and go, deputy directors for management to come and go, and these types of people come and go, because they’re politically appointed. And it seems to not have that much bearing on the scores, because the top agencies seem to be fairly persistent year after year. Which means it’s not political leadership, it’s really the determinant.

Bob Tobias Well, I think a top level leader does have a real impact, because they’re the ones who are saying, I want you to spend time leading. The greatest reason for failure of leaders in the federal sector, is because they continue to do as opposed to make time to lead. So if I’m at the top, I can say stop doing, start leading. And I think that’s an important part, in addition to the training, providing them training on how to create that environment of engagement. So if you could think Tom, of the supervisor, who you most valued in your career, the one you most valued in your career. And then imagine an agency like NASA, where the vast majority are those kinds of leaders, you have an idea of what it takes to make an agency number one, and more importantly, to stay number one, because they improve every single year. So these leaders, at all levels, have make an effort to speak authentically with those they lead. So they say, Hey, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. They strive to create trust so that they can behave collaboratively as opposed to competitively they spend their time providing feedback, not just annually, or quarterly, but every single day about what’s going well, and what’s not going well. They spend time to know the person they are leading so they can help them. They can provide developmental assignments, they can challenge them. So if you live in that kind of an environment, engagement is possible.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bob Tobias, former professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. So what I’m hearing your you say is that, yes, it’s important for supervisors to know what the work is, know what’s involved, but they shouldn’t be so caught up in doing their own tasks that they can therefore have the time to learn management strategies, such as understanding people, listening to people, giving the guidance and so on.

Bob Tobias That’s right. Most people grow up in a command and control environment. Their families are command and control. There’s no, when you’re a kid, your old man tells you what to do. So then when your first job you work at McDonald’s, it’s how many burgers you flip per minute. Nobody’s asking you how you might flip the burgers better. So we grow up in a command and control environment. But when we’re working in the federal government, which is facing incredibly challenging problems, we need collaboration, not command and control. And those agencies who are at the top have a collaborative work environment.

Tom Temin So if I’m a top level senior executive, or an appointee, it is my resolve to get my scores up for engagement for Best Places to Work rankings. And in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Scores, which are the source of the data for the best places to work. What should I do?

Bob Tobias Well, it’s kind of interesting. [Department of Homeland Security (DHS)] has been at the bottom forever. I wish I knew how much money had been spent by DHS on getting consulting advice. And as you might imagine, much money is spent gathering data and providing, you should do a you should do B, you should do C, and then it gets ignored. I asked my students, often in every class, I’d say, All right, here’s your score and your agency, what five things would you pledge to do differently? What five behaviors would you pledge to change in order to increase your score? Most, if not all, supervisors asked that question. If they’re the least bit reflective, would be able to say what they need to do to increase their score. So I think that agencies who want to increase their score have to start at the bottom, instead of at the top. They have to start with the bottom and encourage those leaders to take accountability and responsibility for changing their behavior in order to increase their score.

Tom Temin And also maybe do a little data analysis of your FEVS, and find out if there are maybe certain groups or certain classes of employees that are uniformly good, giving good scores, or uniformly giving bad scores that can give you clues as to where strengths and weaknesses are.

Bob Tobias Yes. NASA is really, really good at that. They do an analysis about where it’s good and what’s bad. And they also look at what might be systemic, causing systemic problems in the workplace that limit the ability of first and second level supervisors to solve employee problems. So both are important. And those who are really sustaining themselves at the top and getting better do extensive data analysis.

Tom Temin Because you look at some agencies, I’m looking at Transportation Security Administration. Prominent agency, and it has really not very good scores, it’s 415 down on the list of components. And it has achieved unionization in recent years, it’s had a new contract in recent years, it’s had a systemic agency wide pay boost, to get it close to the GS range, there have been reforms to how shifts are handled, even improvements in the uniform fabric quality. So that’s a tough one. When you encounter most TSA agents in the public, they’re pretty good. And they continually improve the process of screening, there are always exceptions. And so that’s a mystery to me.

Bob Tobias I think TSA is a really, really great example. Because the first level supervisor, where as we’ve been discussing, is the most important point of contact in TSA has incredibly little discretion to solve your problem. The rules are clear, the regulations are clear. When I as employee, I’m going to report how I’m going to behave is all clear. I can’t solve your problems Tom, when you come to me and say, I’d like to zig instead of zag. I say, No, I can’t do that. So in an environment where the discretion of the first level supervisor is limited, it’s really hard to increase those scores.

Tom Temin All right, so your big takeaway from this year.

Bob Tobias I think those who have been doing well continue to do well because they continue to challenge themselves to be better. Every year, notwithstanding 12 straight years of NASA being at the top, they keep getting better. And once that momentum starts, it can keep rolling. And that’s the difficulty of those at the bottom.


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