'Best places to work' rankings put Nuclear Regulatory Commission at top of federal workplace heap

By Ed O'Keefe and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 12:17 AM

It's something every worker can relate to: Your office isn't meeting its goals, customers aren't happy, there's turmoil at the top - and morale is plummeting.

It happens in the federal government, too, where agencies facing intense public scrutiny, shifting priorities and unstable leadership can see nose dives in worker satisfaction. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission, a critical player in this battered economy, and the Office of Management and Budget, the agency responsible for implementing President Obama's government reforms - hit the skids in the fifth "Best Places to Work" rankings, a closely watched report of federal employees.

Their plunges are dramatic exceptions to the overall results that show federal workers are the most satisfied with their employer - up 2.7 percent from 2009 - an encouraging sign as the government continues to woo applicants for hundreds of thousands of new positions. The survey, the fifth since 2003, is the first rank-and-file report card on the Obama administration.

The rankings account for the perceptions of more than 263,000 workers at 290 federal organizations. It is compiled by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan think tank devoted to promoting public sector careers, and American University's School of Public Affairs.

Overall, 65 percent of workers were satisfied with the federal government as an employer and would recommend it as a place to work, the survey said. Almost 79 percent were satisfied that their jobs match their agency's mission; 63 percent were pleased with their pay; and 61 percent were satisfied with training and development opportunities. Just 36 percent of workers think the government is giving them enough flexibility to work from home or telecommute as they try to raise families.

The primary factor in job satisfaction, however, remains effective leadership from senior agency bosses, the survey concluded. Over the years, senior leadership has scored low in the survey, and the Obama administration is no exception.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, however, had high scores for its senior leadership - 72 percent - and topped the list of large agencies for a third year. It was followed by the Government Accountability Office, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Smithsonian Institution. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and National Archives and Records Administration tied for last among large agencies.

The SEC plummeted from 11th last year to 24th. Management said frontline lawyers, accountants and examiners are still recovering from a restructuring that started last year with the appointment of Chairwoman Mary Schapiro; the replacement of about a dozen senior managers; and a turnaround in culture.

"We would have liked to see different numbers," said Jeffrey Risinger, SEC's chief human capital officer. "But we've been through a lot in the last 18 months. When you go through those kinds of efforts, communication is challenging. There are times when you don't have clear answers to communicate."

The restructuring also exposed long-standing morale problems that predated the financial crisis, including complaints about how the agency promotes and evaluates workers, said Greg Gilman, president of Chapter 293 of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 2,700 SEC staffers.

"These issues have reached back years," Gilman said. "We feel we're now in a position to actually be able to address them."

By contrast, the FDIC, which secures bank deposits, was buoyed by its central role in the recent economic downturn after years of low morale. It took the third spot among large agencies as it managed 140 bank failures in 2009 and 118 failures so far this year.

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