The Federal Maritime Commission is a record-setting agency.

The commission set the record for the largest drop among Cabinet departments and independent agencies for two straight years in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

The Partnership for Public Service, with support from the Deloitte consulting firm, is releasing its annual Best Places list Thursday. It’s not good news for commission Chairman Richard A. Lidinsky Jr.

What Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive, said about the survey in general goes double for the commission:

“The 2012 Best Places to Work results tell a troubling, but not surprising story. Our nation’s public servants have sent a clear signal that all is not well. The two-year pay freeze, budget cuts and ad hoc hiring freezes are taking their toll — and this is a red flag.”

If the report is a red flag for agencies generally, it’s a wall of flashing red lights telling the FMC to stop what it is doing and go in a different direction.

Now, it’s going down quickly, and budget issues don’t fully explain it.

Most troubling is the steady decline in the commission’s ranking since 2009, when it was the most improved small agency. Then, it was ranked sixth out of 32 agencies and its index score, a measure of employee satisfaction, jumped 28 percent to 76.6. After a small decline in the score in 2010, there was a 19 percent drop from 2010 to 2011. This year, the index score fell 22 percent, to 34.7, and the agency is ranked 28th out of 29.

“When you see a drop that is consistent for three years running,” Stier said in an interview, “you know there is a real problem.”

What to do about the FMC’s problem is the question.

After last year’s report, “I personally went around and met with various operating bureaus and their staffs to try to get feedback,” said Ronald D. Murphy, the commission’s managing director.

Based on that feedback, the agency formed a working group to improve employee awards and recognition, but, Murphy said, “we don’t have an output from them as yet.”

Now the agency plans to focus on morale by more frequently engaging employees in decision-making and asking the partnership (which has a content- sharing relationship with The Washington Post) to conduct focus groups with the staff. The aim is to get a better understanding of staff concerns and to develop a plan to address them.

Employees have serious matters, beyond pay and budget issues, to be concerned about, matters that could contribute to the agency’s poor ranking.

In a May letter to Lidinsky, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the FMC “may be an agency in crisis. Commission insiders allege that the politicization of the Commission’s core functions and administrative decisions has contributed to a climate of fear and intimidation among agency managers and staff.”

Issa’s letter referred to allegations of retaliation against employees who objected to banning owner-operated trucks from the Port of Los Angeles. Those employees and others, according to Issa, were subjected “to covert surveillance of their computers and e-mails.”

Lidinsky declined to discuss his response to Issa. Allegations, even by a congressman, don’t equal proof of wrongdoing, but Lidinsky was right when he said, “Certainly it doesn’t help morale.”

Issa’s probe alone, however, can’t explain why employee satisfaction at the commission compares so poorly with morale at other agencies. FMC problems predate his letter.

“I came to a commission that had no chairman for three years, so there was a vacuum of leadership,” said Lidinsky, who joined the commission in July 2009 and became chairman that September. However, data indicating that FMC was the most improved small agency in 2009 were collected during that vacuum.

Lidinsky oversaw two reorganizations to focus the agency on Obama administration goals.

“Any kind of reorganization brings with it discomfort,” he said. “I would say that’s certainly part of the situation.”

In addition, there are issues that affect employees in all agencies, such as the freeze on basic pay rates and lack of funds for hiring and promotion.

“All these things I think factor together and translate into the scores,” Lidinsky said.

Those scores are at the bottom across the board for FMC — except, ironically, when it comes to employee satisfaction with pay. Out of 27 agencies, the commission ranked 18th in pay satisfaction. In all other categories, including leadership, management, teamwork, training and diversity, the agency ranked 26th or 27th.

But this doesn’t mean everyone is dissatisfied.

Magdalene Grant, 58, a legal assistant who has been at the agency for 37 years, wouldn’t work anywhere else.

“Despite not getting promoted, I still would rather work here and not get promoted than work somewhere else and not enjoy it,” she said.

A single mother, she said she loves working at the FMC because of its family-friendly policies. In fact, she said, the work environment itself feels like family.

She’s not happy with everything at the agency, but she likes her work so much that “many times” she has not taken vacation time, instead donating it to a leave bank. Grant knew about Issa’s letter, but “it didn’t affect me,” she said.

“I don’t really take off. That’s how much I enjoy it,” she added. “I come here sick. . . . I feel better coming here to work than staying home in bed.”

Just think how good she’d feel if the Best Places to Work list indicated that more of her colleagues felt the same way.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at