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'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.

"I think everyone feels overworked - and we are - but people feel a lot of pride in their work," Chairman Sheila Bair said.

The survey gave several examples of how an agency's leadership can affect results. The Federal Labor Relations Authority, stagnant during George W. Bush's administration, saw its scores more than double thanks to strong reviews for agency leadership. It earned the biggest year-to-year jump among small agencies.

By contrast, low scores for top leaders at OMB sent the agency from third to 25th among small agencies. The numbers come just weeks after former director Peter R. Orszag departed, after overseeing efforts to accelerate the government's hiring process and cut billions of dollars in wasteful government contracts and federal building costs.

"The political and career leaders here at OMB take the results of this survey very seriously," said spokeswoman Meg Reilly. Officials are collecting worker feedback and hope to quickly implement changes, she said.

Scores on the survey's 100-point scale ranged from an 81.8 for NRC to a 57.1 for HUD and the National Archives. The Transportation Department, which placed last among large agencies in 2009, saw the biggest one-year climb, jumping four spots to 26th.

Among smaller agencies, the Surface Transportation Board placed first, with an 86.8; the Selective Service System was last, with 47.4.

A bright spot amid this year's findings was the Smithsonian Institution, where about 4,000 workers are paid by the government and another 2,000 museum directors, concession workers, and fundraising personnel are paid through private funds. The survey accounted only for the perceptions of the government workers.

"It's almost a cliche, but it's a special place and people believe it makes a difference," said Jim Douglas, the Smithsonian's head of human resources. "Everyone knows the Smithsonian, and you get a good feeling from being a part of this place."

The Smithsonian was one of 20 agencies participating in the survey for the first time, including the Peace Corps and the National Gallery of Art.

The survey is emerging as an important management tool for agencies looking to spot trouble areas, said Partnership President Max Stier.

"Particularly in an environment like the government, where you don't have profit and loss statements and stock prices, this information becomes even more important," Stier said.

The partnership (which maintains a content-sharing arrangement with The Washington Post) compiled the rankings using data from the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Agencies not part of OPM's survey asked workers to complete similar questionnaires.

The survey also signaled an encouraging bright spot regarding the government's younger and newer workers: Employees ages 40 and younger were more satisfied with the government as an employer than their older colleagues. Younger workers with three or fewer years of service also gave the government a satisfaction score almost 10 points higher than the overall average.

To review the full rankings please visit www.BestPlacestoWork.org.

ed.okeefe@washingtonpost.comreinl@washpost.com

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