Best places to work in the federal government
One consistent theme in the upper echelon of the rankings each year is mission: that the employees have an especially strong feeling the work they do is important and makes a difference in people’s lives.
All federal agencies have a mission — that’s why they exist — but not all of them are the model employer that President Biden wants his government to become. Compared with private industry, the hiring process in the government is slower and more difficult for a job applicant to navigate. Salaries are not as competitive in occupations such as health care and cybersecurity. The internship program has dwindled.
Federal agencies face challenges outside their control, with budgets set through a complex process involving annual negotiations, often politically charged, between Congress and the White House. That annual process often bogs down with threats — which sometimes turn into reality — of agency shutdowns and unpaid furloughs. At times, the government hits the federal debt ceiling, threatening not only shutdowns but much wider economic damage if that limit isn’t raised; one of those threats lies just months ahead.
This project is being published in collaboration with the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group, which together produce the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. The rankings are based on the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management and 14 other agencies’ independent surveys.
Regardless, agencies have been working to become more attractive as employers. The job application process is a bit simpler now. Administrators are fighting for better pay for in-demand jobs. Recruitment and retention incentive payments are being introduced along with student loan reimbursements to attract more talent. There is renewed attention to training and other career development programs.
Most importantly, the government continues to offer the kind of insurance and retirement benefits that have been eroding among many other employers.
By definition, only some federal agencies can be the best places to work. But in their own ways, all of them can be good places to work.
The annual rankings of the federal agencies are divided into three categories based on size, and one category of offices within the each agency called “subcomponent”: Large agencies have 15,000 or more employees; Midsize agencies have between 1,000 and 14,999 employees; and Small agencies have at least 100 employees but fewer than 1,000.
— Eric Yoder
This is the 11th year NASA placed No. 1 in this category. Last year was particularly successful: hitting an asteroid directly in space as part of the DART mission; collecting stellar imagery from the James Webb Space Telescope; and the successful launch of Artemis I, the beginning of the effort to create a lunar community. Even with private companies joining the ranks of space travel, NASA remains a key international player. “We operate as a crew,” says Administrator Bill Nelson, who flew himself in 1986 as a payload specialist, about his immediate team, Col. Pam Melroy and Bob Cabana, and the rest of NASA employees. “We have to depend on each other. I’m the fella responsible, but I give credit to them.”
With a 97 percent retention rate (not including the rare retirement), and a frequent spot in the top five of the annual survey, GAO seems to take the managerial advice it gives. GAO staffers create a healthy diet of written reports, videos and podcasts about how money is being spent in the federal government. A new acting chief scientist, Karen Howard, helps to explain issues around science and technology. One of the most popular analyses, however, is the High-Risk List published every two years in April, complete with worrisome spending trends and helpful solutions to fix the problems.
A frequent member of the top 10, the CBO has been busy providing preliminary analyses and technical assistance during the drafting phase of legislation along with regular responsibilities such as producing the annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Many of the analysts are focused on health policy, while others handle energy and climate, labor, macroeconomics, microeconomics, national security and taxes. Director Phillip L. Swagel is asking for more employees in the next fiscal year to not only help with the workload but also to create the analytical tools that are required to meet the demand for information.
When the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, John Hanley’s team reviewed the incoming applications for special financial assistance while General Counsel Karen Morris and her team handled the legal matters of the bill’s payments. The PBGC was still operating remotely during these days. “We felt very motivated because this program is beneficial to many Americans,” Morris said.