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SEC Should Follow the Leaders at SBA, Workplace Survey Finds

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The good thing about being at the bottom of the heap is there's no place to go but up.

And moving up on the list of large federal agencies that improved the most and the least should be a top agenda item at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2009 report, scheduled for release today by the Partnership for Public Service, shows that the SEC dropped in the eyes of federal workers more than any other agency during the two years since the last survey.

How much agencies moved up or down seems to be based on three things: leadership, leadership, leadership.

The SEC's 2009 overall score fell nearly 8 percent from 2007. To appreciate just how great a fall from grace that is, consider that the next sharpest drop was a 1.7 percent decline by the Agriculture Department.

The partnership developed the 2009 scores from responses to three questions federal workers were asked in the Office of Personnel Management's 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey: Would employees recommend their organizations as good places to work? How satisfied are employees with their jobs? How satisfied are employees with their agencies?

Compare the SEC's slump in scoring to the huge progress made by the Small Business Administration, which enjoyed a 30 percent increase. The SBA is among the agencies invited to be honored this morning at a program planned at the Ronald Reagan Building.

The SEC, unfortunately, isn't on the list of honorees. There's no place on the program for the agency that demonstrated the largest negative change. In 2007, agency officials were very proud of their number three spot among 30 agencies. This year they fell to number 11.

"It's about leadership," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the partnership.

When you get into the weeds of data in the report, you find negative ratings by SEC employees in all categories, with large ones directly related to the leadership of the agency.

At this point, we'd like to report a thoughtful response to the findings by SEC officials, past and present. But former chairman Christopher Cox, who was in charge when the survey was conducted, did not respond to a request for comment made through an associate. The new chairwoman, Mary Schapiro, also had nothing to say, even though she could have put all the blame on Cox while promising to do better in the future.

That's too bad because the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents SEC workers, is optimistic about the new SEC leadership, and Schapiro probably has some good words of wisdom she's not sharing. All we could get was this uninspired response from the SEC press office: "Chairman Schapiro has asked the office of Human Resources to fully analyze the results and then develop a plan of action that will allow the SEC to once again regain our position as one of the best places to work in Government."

The agency would provide no details on what the action plan might cover or when it will be implemented.

The SBA headquarters in Washington is only 1.5 miles from the SEC's main office, but there's a much greater distance in the degree of change in their scores. The improvement in the perception of the senior SBA leadership was particularly impressive, a 36 percent increase.

Steven C. Preston was the SBA administrator during most of the period since the last survey. He had a clear vision of what leaders at the agency should do.

"We had a very focused change agenda that did a number of things and employees understood every aspect of that change agenda," he said.

That agenda included addressing service quality problems aggressively, heavily involving employees in those solutions, a tight management structure to supervise initiatives, a strong communication program with employees and increasing training for workers.

"Employees were consistently involved in the process," he said.

A close look at the change agenda indicates that a prime motivating force for federal employee satisfaction is the agency's devotion to its mission. Of course, things such as pay, benefits and working conditions are important. But over and over again, we find evidence that federal workers want agency leaders to demonstrate a fierce loyalty to serving the public by honoring the mission.

And those leaders also need to demonstrate a loyalty to their staffs by allowing them to shine.

Preston tells the story of a major reengineering needed in an SBA business loan program. It required moving people, changing workflows and improving technology.

"We had a senior manager who was a very big critic of the change -- didn't believe we could do it," Preston recalled. "Once we made the change and achieved very dramatic results, he got on a conference call with me and he said: 'I have learned never to underestimate my people. I made a mistake in underestimating what my people could and would do. And now I've become a believer.' "

Uncle Sam needs more believers.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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