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Best Places to Work Numbers Are Out – How Can Gov Get Its Mojo Back?

The 2013 Best Places to Work data present a disturbing picture of federal employees throughout the government who are increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs and workplaces. Government-wide, the federal employee job satisfaction and commitment level dropped for the third year in a row, tumbling 3 points to a score of 57.8 on a scale of 100. This represents the lowest overall Best Places to Work score since the rankings were first launched in 2003, and follows a 3.2-point drop in 2012 and a 1-point decline in 2011. In contrast, private-sector employee satisfaction improved by 0.7 points in 2013 to a score of 70.7, reads the Best Places to Work opening paragraph.

The 2013 Best Places to Work rankings of federal workplace satisfaction paint a dismal picture of agency leadership, management and employee opportunities.This year’s governmentwide ranking was an all-time low since the Best Places to Work rankings began in 2003.

David Dye is the Director of Federal Human Capital at Deloitte. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that although the numbers are bleak there are some bright spots.

By the numbers:

  • Government wide score was 57.8. It was also the 3rd straight year that number has decreased.
  • Effective leadership down 1 point.
  • Employee skill mission match down two points.
  • Strategic management down by more than two points.
  • Teamwork down by a half point
  • Training and development down by more than 3 points
  • Pay was down by nearly 5 points

“When you reflect on some of the numbers it is probably not a surprise given what has been going on this year. Pay freezes, sequestration, furloughs, the government shutdown, but this data was actually collected back in April. So it is pretty noteworthy to know that these results are not even influenced by the October shutdown,” said Dye.

The one highlight here is that some agencies actually went up?

“Percentage wise 24% of the agencies went up. Some did not decline as much as the government wide three point drop. Frankly that might be a reason for celebration. What is interesting though, if you look at the numbers for the agencies that went down, which is 70%, compared to those that went up, what seems to distinguish between those two groups is the impact that leaders have particularly when the workforce is going through uncertain times. Ambiguity is rampant in the workplace and there are a lot of things that are not under people’s control. But those that seemed to have weathered this storm a little bit, those are the ones that over communicated what they know, what they don’t know, and actually got closer and more connected to their workforce,” said Dye.

Adversity vs. Opportunities?

“Included in our findings is a 10 year retrospective on the best places to work government rankings. We profiled six agencies with some in depth interviews and conversations. What you will find in there are the bright spots. We have some agencies that have been perennially at the top and have stayed at the top. We have other agencies that have made dramatic leaps over the years. So while you get a lot of rich content and stories about what they did, the other thing you will find in the report are five to six success factors if you roll up these case studies what are the things that you could do,” said Dye.

In the big agency category NASA is repeatedly at or near the top. What do they do right?

“What drives the overall ranking in order of importance are effective leadership, alignment of how the agency aligns a person’s skills to the mission, and pay. Relatively speaking leadership is about twice as important as skills mission match and then pay is much less than that. So I have to believe that NASA as well as the other bright stories, are doing some really good things around what their leaders do and what they say and how they respond to some of these uncertain times. NASA still has a very important and easily identifiable mission. So I think they have strong leadership and an alignment that you believe you are working for something that is very important and a mission that is bigger than anyone of us individually,” said Dye.

Dye said there are some universal things that happen at all high performing agencies:

  1. Pay attention to data like the viewpoint survey. It is the best single barometer we have in government of how our workforce feels and thinks. So owning the data and owning the changes that come from understanding where you are doing well and where you can make some improvements, that is an overarching message that I would provide for leaders.
  2. Sometimes we talk about going for quick wins, but of those top agencies they have already done that quick win thing. They’ve now figured out how to develop some shared values. They have built multiple ways of communicating throughout the workforce. Partnering with unions often comes up with some of these.

Private sector comparison?

“If you go back five years and look at comparable questions between best places to work and the private sector, the private sector numbers even in the midst of recessions and downturns have hardly moved. In the government numbers we reached our peak in 2010 and then have had a steady decline for three years. What that says to me is that we can move the needle. We can move the needle up and we can move the needle down,” said Dye.

View from the top?

“We looked at the perceptions between the senior executive service and the rest of the workforce and just like last year there is a big gap. The numbers for the rank and file feds are about 57.7 and for the SES it is almost 81. So huge differences in how leaders and rank and file feel about satisfaction and commitment. If we believe that leaders have the most awareness, knowledge and insights about how things are going, and are also confident about the future, we have an opportunity for those leaders to transfer that to the workforce. IF we do that then I believe the workforce will be more confident about the future and they will want to more actively participate in making their agency one of the best places to work,” said Dye.

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Profile Photo John Verrico

Terry Hill makes a good point about Dan Pink’s book on leadership and motivation. There are lots of other good books out there too. But managers and agency heads can read all the books they want on leadership, and will still never be “leaders” unless they take the principles to heart and apply them. Two things are essential — open, honest communication and the humility to empower others. The root cause of employee dissatisfaction lies in people being left out of the decision process. Dissatisfied employees are the ones that do not feel they are trusted by their leadership – not trusted with information and not trusted to make decisions to do the work they were hired to do. Not every decision can be made democratically, but people need to have access to the information that impacts their work. There should be open dialogue so that, even if a decision is made counter to the employees’ desires, the workers feel as if they had a fair chance to provide input. I believe we will find that at places like NASA and the other top-rated agencies, people are trusted to make daily decisions and are empowered to accomplish their mission without micromanagement. These are also the agencies where information flow up, down and across the workforce is unencumbered. Lets learn from them.

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Profile Photo Megan

I think one of the factors that is contributing to the lower scores is that the security state that the Bush administration was building in the wake of 9.11 has never been dismantled. We have militarized our law enforcement, our federal agencies, and we have seen extreme abuses of power in the name of national security since 9.11. The recent decision that the NSA spying is most likely unconstitutional is a good start to dismantling the surveillance/security state that the US has built. More here. In addition, we have lost our momentum towards civil rights since the Reagan Administration rolled out a deregulation agenda. The Obama Administration has made some progress reversing these trends but more work is needed. Here is a good report on A Better, More Diverse Senior Executive Service in 2050. That seems like a great place to start.

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Profile Photo Megan

In terms of the gap between the SES and rank and file perceptions, you need only look to this chart to understand why. Table 1 is a summary of the number and percent of career SES members who received a performance rating at the highest available performance level.

Career SES Performance FY 2006-FY 2009
Career SES Rated Percent at Highest Level
AGENCY FY 2006 FY 2007 FY 2008 FY 2009 Percent Change FY 2008-FY 2009

DEFENSE 1,068 31.4% 1,084 31.0% 1,136 27.7% 1,168 28.5% 0.8%
EDUCATION 68 42.7% 64 53.1% 68 45.6% 65 58.5% 12.9%
GSA 69 23.2% 68 48.5% 76 43.4% 78 44.9% 1.5%
HHS 340 59.1% 355 63.7% 354 72.6% 357 68.9% -3.7%
DHS 239 53.6% 300 52.3% 361 49.0% 413 51.8% 2.8%
JUSTICE 563 62.9% 601 66.9% 634 67.0% 657 68.7% 1.7%
NASA 382 55.5% 415 59.0% 430 59.5% 424 65.8% 6.3%

More here, Interestingly, there is no correlation whatsoever between the performance ratings of the SES and the leadership ratings by the federal employees.

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