The Bush administration's top number crunchers have a new piece of data to ponder: The Office of Management and Budget has finished No. 1 in a nonprofit group's just-released survey of "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government."
The OMB, a politically powerful agency that develops the president's annual budget and helps manage federal agencies, climbed two places in the 2005 rankings by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that wants to entice more talented people to work for Uncle Sam.
The agency, run by a full-time staff of fewer than 500, most of them in professional positions, "encourages a fast-paced environment with tight deadlines and intensive collaboration with high-level agency officials to make the most of its employees' talents," according to the group's report. The OMB has a big impact on national policy and gives younger workers critical responsibilities in an atmosphere that emphasizes teamwork and matches employees' skills to their missions, the report said.
Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the OMB, said that the agency's No. 1 ranking reflects its culture of "engaging employees and holding managers accountable for results" -- a culture that he said he hopes to bring to more federal agencies.
The rankings -- which first appeared in 2003 and are compiled every other year -- are sure to generate discussion and disagreement among agencies. The National Science Foundation finished second in this year's list and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission third, with the Government Accountability Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission rounding out the top five.
The top-ranked agencies tended to be smaller, with a mostly professional staff working on a relatively focused mission. Larger departments with varied staffs and missions -- such as Agriculture, Defense, Labor and the Interior -- tended to be in the middle of the list.
The partnership put together the list with the help of American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation and Sirota Survey Intelligence.
To compile the rankings, the partnership analyzed the responses of nearly 150,000 federal employees to questions about their overall job satisfaction. Respondents were asked whether they agreed with statements such as "My job makes good use of my skills and abilities" and "I hold my organization's leaders in high regard."
The information was drawn from the Office of Personnel Management's 2004 Federal Human Capital Survey, a scientific study of federal employees conducted last year. The 2003 rankings were based on responses to an earlier OPM survey.
Because the rankings are driven wholly by internal perceptions of the workplace, they reflect how happy federal employees are in their agencies, not which agencies are the best-performing.
"It's an important distinction," said Max Stier, the partnership's president. "But there's a lot of research that how the employees feel is incredibly important to the bottom line. When your employees are engaged at work, they produce more, they do better. . . . People that are engaged are going to do better work."
The 2003 rankings generated some controversy because the top-rated agency was NASA, which was still reeling from the fatal crash of the space shuttle Columbia that year and was facing criticism for a management culture that did not place enough emphasis on safety. NASA dropped to No. 6 this year, mainly because four of the five agencies that finished ahead of it were included in the rankings for the first time.
"Other agencies overtook them, rather than NASA doing worse," Stier said. "They saw a small incremental drop."
The Department of Homeland Security, which was too new to be included in the 2003 rankings, finished second-to-last among 30 large agencies this year. Since its creation in 2003, the department has been plagued by poor morale and organizational discord as the administration tries to stitch 22 different agencies into a coherent, functional bureaucracy. The Small Business Administration, which ranked 24th in 2003, came in last.
In rankings that depend on the feel-good factor, the partnership's listing of smaller agencies, appropriately enough, placed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services in the No. 1 slot.