Two Commerce agencies: One at the top, one at the bottom on ‘Best Places’ list


A closed entrance to the Commerce Department is pictured on Oct. 1 in Washington. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Joe Davidson
Columnist December 18, 2013

Like any parent or guardian, Uncle Sam is proud of his children.

Yet, as in any family, the children in Sam’s go different ways. Some make the honor roll; others barely make the grade.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

This is the story of offspring from the Commerce Department. Two siblings are making their marks in different ways — good and bad.

Commerce’s U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) makes Sam very proud. The Economic Development Administration (EDA) has him wondering what went wrong.

Report cards for 300 federal agencies, in the form of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, are being released Wednesday. The USPTO ranks first. The EDA ranks last.

Which government agency is best to work for?

Margaret A. “Peggy” Focarino, the commissioner for patents, said the key to the top ranking is the agency’s “continued focus on our mission and having our employees feel a connection to that.” The agency works to keep employees engaged through town halls, focus groups, blogs, contests, social media and innovative ways of doing training during a period of budget cuts.

Workplace flexibility — particularly the agency’s noted telework program — and good labor-management relations also contribute to a place where employees are happy and productive.

Jay Besch, a trademark examining attorney, left private practice in 2005 to join the USPTO. He could be making at least twice as much at his old firm, but he doesn’t regret the move.

“The work-life balance that the government provides . . . is one of the main benefits of my job,” he said. “The USPTO makes that even better with its telework programs, which I have participated in since 2007. We are also given a fair amount of autonomy in doing our jobs without constant disruption and overbearing management. This is because our jobs are well defined and what we are required to do is very clear.”

The role of unions should be acknowledged. Union leaders understand the need to be vigilant on issues affecting the workforce, and the USPTO’s management appreciates the importance of good labor-management relations.

Management engages “unions upfront before decisions are made, resulting in better decision-making, more support for decisions from employees and timelier implementation, all of which leads to improved productivity and employee satisfaction,” said Howard Friedman, president of the National Treasury Employees Union’s chapter at the agency. The Patent Office Professional Association also represents employees.

A deeper dive into the Best Places report, issued annually by the Partnership for Public Service and based on data from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, finds a wide disparity in how employees score the USPTO and EDA.

The the USPTO, with more than 11,000 staffers, has an index score of 84.4, reflecting a strong and steady increase from 57.2 in 2007. The EDA is dragging at 24.8, a sharp drop from 44.5 last year.

The index score is determined by three viewpoint survey questions: Do you recommend your organization as a good place to work? How satisfied are you with your job? How satisfied are you with your organization?

What makes two agencies in the same department diverge so dramatically?

“The quick answer is, it is all about leadership,” said Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service’s president and chief executive. “The leader who actually sets the tone for the organization’s culture is not the secretary but the component head.”

Pulling down EDA’s ranking is the 16.1 score employees gave the effectiveness of their senior leaders. It is a little agency, with fewer than 200 employees. Small changes can make a big difference, for better or worse.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the bad news, Commerce did not make EDA leaders available for comment.

Sarah R. Horowitz, Commerce’s deputy press secretary, said that “EDA is committed to transforming the agency into a best-in-class agency — one that demonstrates its commitment to its mission and the employees who execute that mission. EDA employees have enthusiastically volunteered to be part of an improvement process that was initiated to help achieve that goal.”

The EDA is trying to improve. Horowitz said the agency met a year ago with the USPTO, the Partnership and the Deloitte consulting firm to learn about best practices and “stumbling blocks to avoid.” The EDA has held focus groups, prioritized more than 100 of their recommendations and is implementing “improvement actions.” An “action plan” is expected by April.

Sounds good. But it is results that count.

Previous columns by Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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