Federal workers cheered at an April 2011 rally in Falls Church, Va. (Mark Gail/WASHINGTON POST)

For the first time, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sits at the top, unseating the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which placed first in the last three surveys. The Government Accountability Office ranks third.

Among smaller agencies, the Surface Transportation Board topped the list for the third time, earning a 91.1 out of 100, the survey’s high score. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a first-time participant, placed second among smaller agencies, followed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

You can read the top-line details by yours truly in today’s editions of The Washington Post, but let’s take a deeper look at some of the trends within the survey results:

Pay Problems

Though the top variables in the survey are worker perceptions of their top political bosses, and concerns over whether their job fits with their agency’s mission, compensation is an ever-growing concern.

Among all federal employees surveyed, satisfaction with pay dropped to 59 percent this year, from 63 percent in 2010. Among workers in grades 1 through 12 of the General Schedule, satisfaction slipped by 1 percentage point. Pay satisfaction among those in the GS-13 to GS-15 pay scales dropped to 74 percent, down four points from last year, while it dropped by 4 percentage points among members of the Senior Executive Service and other top earners.


Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, which compiles the rankings, said that one of the most notable trends is the growing contrast between the top-ranked FDIC and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has slipped to 27th, after ranking third in 2007.

Both agencies are facing pressures to deal with the effects of the global economic crisis, he said, “but they are facing dramatically different consequences.”

SEC’s declines began in the final years of George W. Bush’s administration as Congress and watchdogs began raising questions about the agency’s effectiveness. Opinions about the agency leadership appeared to be the biggest variable separating the two financial regulatory bodies, Stier said. FDIC’s top leaders earned a 70.9 percent approval rating, while SEC’s bosses earned just a 39.9 percent approval.

View Photo Gallery: The Partnership for Public Service released the 2011 version of its annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings on Nov. 16. Here are the 10 large agencies that employees rank at the top.

Slow and steady doesn’t win — but earns a good grade

There was little year-to-year improvement this year for Cabinet-level departments, but at least two are holding steady thanks to respectable scores for the top boss.

The State Department ranks 7th overall this year, slipping just 1 percentage point, while the Justice Department once again ranks 11th overall. Why are they holding relatively steady? Worker perceptions of top agency leaders are swaying results as never before, according to Stier.

For example, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earns a 56.9 percent approval rating among the nation’s diplomats, up 2 percentage points from last year. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s approval rating ticked up .8 percentage points. Those numbers helped their departments hold steady, Stier said.

At the bottom end of the scale, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earned a 41.4 percent approval rating, down four points from last year — and the Department of Homeland Security ranks near the bottom.

(For more on how top leaders ranked, read Al Kamen’s In the Loop column.)

What do men and women think? How about the young and old?

For the first time, female federal employees are more satisfied with their work than men — but just marginally. Satisfaction among women is at 67.1 percent, compared to 66.4 for men. And men are still more satisfied than women at 18 of 30 largest agencies, the survey said.

Notably, there is growing pessimism among younger feds: Satisfaction among federal workers younger than 40 dropped 1.5 percentage points from last year. Satisfaction among workers older than 40 also dropped, but just by .5 percentage points.

And what’s wrong at the National Archives?

Among the largest federal agencies, the National Archives and Records Administration has dropped to the bottom, earning just a 53 percent score overall, a 7-percentage-point drop from last year.

So what gives?

“They’re cracking some eggs over there to make a new omelet,” said Partnership Vice President John Palguta.

In other words, they’re in the midst of an overhaul.

David Ferriero announced a major agency reorganization in January, an issue still on the minds of employees when they took the survey in April and May, said Analisa Archer, the agency’s chief human resources official.

“There was a lot of uncertainty at the agency in that point of time in trying to process and digest what the reorganization would mean,” Archer said. “And I have to tell you: while we’re of course disappointed in the scores, everything in conventional literature tells you that when you’re in the midst of major organizational change, you usually see a dip in engagement and morale until you see the upside. For us, this is a five-year transformation effort. The archivist has consistently said that, and we’re really just beginning.”

For his part, Ferriero has spent a considerable amount of time on the road, visiting 41 of the agency’s 44 offices across the country.

“And for many of those workers, it’s the first time they’ve seen the archivist of the United States,” Ferriero said.

In each of his visits, he’s heard complaints about insularity and a lack of sufficient technology at the agency. He said his reorganization addresses those concerns

“And it has caused, as you might expect, a fair amount of churn in the organization,” he said. “For some people, it is a breath of fresh air, and for other people it’s an issue of dealing with change. So we’re trying to help them out along those lines also.”

And if workers complain that the reorganization isn’t going well, Ferriero vowed to make course corrections. “We’re going to listen to the staff and make those changes, without waiting 10 years,” he said. “This is very much a work in progress.”

Whether success or failure comes to the Archives, Ferriero has something other top agency bosses doesn’t have: The gift of time. Nominated to his job by President Obama in 2009, serving as the archivist of the United States is a lifetime appointment.

“That's something the staff asked me when I’m on the road: ‘Are you going to be here to see this through?’” Ferriero said. “And the answer is yes. I’m here for the long haul. This is not a hit and run.”

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

Concerns with pay and bosses cause dip in federal worker job satisfaction

How do Obama’s Cabinet members rate?

For more, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.