is the 16th secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which is ranked ninth out of 19 large agencies in the just-released 2012 “
Best Places to Work in the Federal Government
” rankings. DOT was also the most improved large agency, raising its score 4.1 points from 2011. LaHood spoke with Tom Fox, who is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, which also publishes the rankings. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.
When you became secretary in 2009, DOT was ranked last among large agencies in levels of employee satisfaction and commitment. What was your reaction and how did you feel when the agency received recognition for improving so dramatically in 2012?
When I [found out] that DOT was last, I was stunned. I made a commitment that day to do everything I could do to engage people and really change morale and opinions at the department. Four years later, we’ve accomplished a lot. We still have a lot more to do, obviously. But I am really proud of it. It’s not a one-man show by any means. It’s a result of an all-out team effort from a group of people that made a commitment to improve the way people think about the workplace at DOT. This was very focused and comprehensive.
What were some initiatives DOT undertook to turn around employee engagement?
You may not know this, but the majority of our employees are FAA employees. There was no secret around here about how disenchanted National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) workers were for not having a contract for five years. One of our first goals was to reach a contract, which we did within 100 days of my being sworn in. Reaching that goal, and satisfying that number of employees, set us on a course that people understood, that showed that we care about our employees. It felt like it was a very good giant first step.
Two things I think directly impact our employees — we didn’t have a health-care center at headquarters, and we have over 5,000 employees. One of our goals was pretty simple: Establish a health clinic, which we’ve done. One of our other goals was to establish a child-care facility. We’ve fallen short on that, but it’s still one of our goals. People know we’re addressing those. Also, at least once a month we’ve had a town hall meeting live-streamed to our workers around the country. We’ve used the meetings as a way to solicit ideas from employees about improvements in the workplace. They can stand up at a microphone and ask me anything they want to ask me about. I think people have appreciated the fact that they have access to the secretary.
We also have an awards ceremony once a year to honor employees for what they do — just common, ordinary employees who come to work every day and do their job, but they make a difference. We recognize them, and people appreciate that..
How do you make sure workers are comfortable sharing their opinions?