Money's Nice, but a Good Boss Is Better
In Survey of Federal Workplaces, Strong Managers Rank High

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When it comes to sizing up the quality of their workplaces, federal workers value strong leadership and straight answers from their bosses more than even pay and benefits, according to a new comprehensive study of the federal workforce.

The study, scheduled for release today, places the Nuclear Regulatory Commission atop the list of best places to work in the federal government. Other top performers among large federal agencies include the Government Accountability Office, NASA, the intelligence community and the State Department.

At the NRC, officials said the top ranking was earned because senior management takes the time to listen to the staff. "They are the real human resources managers," said Jim McDermott, director of human resources for the commission. "I lead a lazy life." Agencies that received the lowest ratings included the Transportation Department, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Homeland Security Department and the Education Department.

What separates these agencies in the minds of their employees is often the senior leadership, how well or poorly it shares information with subordinates, and the training and opportunities it provides workers, according to the study of federal survey results by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group devoted to improving public service.

"The challenge is for government managers to do a better job of communicating," said John Palguta, vice president for policy for the group. "Communicate, communicate, communicate. It's like real estate."

Despite a general rise in federal workers' job satisfaction over the past two years, the survey of 212,000 workers last summer found that the government consistently lagged behind the private sector in several important measures of worker contentment -- most significantly, superiors' leadership skills, openness and willingness to help their employees advance their careers.

Fewer than half of federal workers, 48 percent, are satisfied with the information they receive from superiors about what is happening in their organizations, a number that trails the private sector by 18 percentage points. Overall, 66 percent of federal workers think their immediate supervisors are doing a good job, eight points less than in the private sector.

"The biggest challenge, clearly, is that the federal workforce has a poor perception of its management and leadership," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the partnership, which today will release its 2009 rankings of "The Best Places to Work" in the federal government.

The partnership's study is based on the Office of Personnel Management's biennial federal human capital survey, conducted in August and September and released in January. About 212,000 employees at 260 departments, agencies and offices were surveyed. The study to be released today amounts to a final report on the state of the federal workforce under the Bush administration, as well as a benchmark to measure what progress can be made by President Obama, who has vowed to reinvigorate the federal government.

"What we have in essence is a challenge to the Obama administration," Stier said. "The new team is in, and they need to better the numbers that have been set. It sets the bar for the new administration. They are now responsible if we see things moving in a positive fashion or getting worse."

Scores on the partnership's 100-point index among 30 large federal agencies ranged from NRC's high mark of 80.7 to the Transportation Department's low of 52.2. They are based on employee responses to questions about whether they are satisfied with their jobs and with their organizations, and whether they would recommend their organizations as good places to work.

Government-wide, agency ratings have increased 2.4 percent from 2007 and 4.6 percent from 2003, a consistent, though not dramatic, improvement.

Several factors may account for the recent higher scores, according to Palguta: the economic downturn, which prompts many employees to better value the jobs they hold; the growing role of the federal government, which these days is more often seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem; and the expectation of change that would be brought by a new administration.

Even as federal employees attach increased importance to finding a healthy balance between work and home life, however, they report less support from supervisors in achieving that balance. The latest Office of Personnel Management survey found that 75 percent of federal employees think their supervisors support their need to balance work and other life issues, compared with 78 percent in 2006 and 79 percent in 2004.

Of 260 federal organizations that were also in the partnership's 2007 index, many experienced improvement, particularly large agencies -- significant improvement was seen in 14 of 29 organizations. Progress was recorded even among agencies pulling up the rear of the rankings. The three lowest-ranked agencies in 2007 -- the departments of Education and Homeland Security and the Small Business Administration -- all recorded significant gains in their scores but remain mired in the bottom five of the rankings.

The Small Business Administration, ranked last at 30th among large agencies in 2007, improved its score by 30 percent but still ranks 26th. Of some consolation, the organization received the partnership's "most improved" award.

"We're extremely pleased, but we think there's more work to do," said Administrator Karen G. Mills.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company