NRC Chief Attributes Top Ranking in Survey to 'Culture of Openness'

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Perhaps being outside the Beltway gives the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a certain edge. Maybe it's the agency's bright, 18-story building -- a relative skyscraper by Washington standards -- that provides workers a lift. Or it could be the extensive, and cheap, fitness center that keeps employees feeling good.

Whatever it is, the NRC takes first place among federal agencies in surveys of government workers.

The Office of Personnel Management's 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey (that always sounds like "human cattle") has the NRC in first place in three of four indexes and second place in the remaining one. It took the top spot in leadership and knowledge management, talent management and job satisfaction. The agency was No. 2, after the National Science Foundation, in the results-oriented performance culture index.

To find out why the NRC did so well, we spoke with Chairman Dale E. Klein in his Rockville office. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What advice would you give a new agency head to create a workplace that could get similar survey results?

A: There are three reasons -- communication, communication and communication. I think we have a culture of openness, so, not only do we communicate, but we listen, and that permeates throughout our agency.

We hire good people, we train them, we give them meaningful work, and then we hold them accountable. What really helps us here is you can disagree without being disagreeable. Honorable individuals have legitimate differences of opinion, and that's fine. At the end of the day, we have to make decisions, but we have a very open process that permeates, I think, the entire agency.

Q: Give us examples of how you communicate with employees.

A: We do it in every mode that we can. We have all-hands meetings within divisions, where I will personally go talk. I will send out e-mails to everybody. We have an awards ceremony where we recognize excellent performance. We try to communicate what those individuals did to get there.

Q: Setting a tone of open communication at the top is one thing, but how strong is communication between lower-level workers and their immediate supervisors?

A: The area we try to concentrate on where we're not as effective as I'd like to see us, that's the first-line supervisor. I think the first-line supervisor is really the most important. It's usually the first time a person has had supervisory responsibility. It's a challenge. What we try to do is really help those first-line supervisors . . . on how they manage individuals. I think that's the part that will set us apart from other agencies.

Q: Describe the all-hands meeting you mentioned.

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