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The few places where job satisfaction in federal goverment is up

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Tom Fox is a guest contributor to the Washington Post’s On Leadership section and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of bad news about the federal government. Whether it’s the fiscal cliff, news about budget and program cuts, or the challenges public servants face meeting the public’s high expectations.

I’m an inveterate optimist, a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I would prefer to focus on what we can do in the future rather than lament the past.

The just-released 2012 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, produced by Deloitte and my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, show the most significant decline in overall employee job satisfaction in nearly a decade. Yet what’s remarkable and some cause for optimism is that nearly 33 percent of the 362 agencies and organizations in the rankings actually increased their scores despite the tough times.

If your organization has been struggling to improve employee satisfaction and commitment, it would be wise to understand what consistently high-performing agencies and those actually improving their performance have done to build a more engaged and, ultimately, a more effective workforce. Here are a few organizations whose examples could benefit others looking to move up in the rankings.

National Credit Union Administration (NCUA): The most improved mid-size agency in the rankings, the NCUA is the independent federal agency created by Congress to regulate, charter and supervise federal credit unions. Similar to DOT, NCUA emphasized leadership and communication as a means of improving employee satisfaction and commitment.

NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz met with employees in every office, held quarterly webinars to surface and answer employees’ questions and concerns, and launched a weekly newsletter to keep employees informed about staffing changes and other internal matters on a week-to-week basis. Through these communications vehicles, leaders learned that NCUA’s procedures were holding back qualified examiners from becoming principal examiners. The agency made several changes to improve the process to ensure consistency and fairness among all employees.

Department of Education (ED), Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO): With a focus on the fundamentals of effective management — strategic planning, leadership development and engaging front-line employees on an ongoing basis — ED’s OCFO saw the largest gains of any subcomponent in the “Best Places to Work” rankings this year. The office developed core values and clear mission statements to provide employees with a vision and a direction for the organization moving forward. Then, they embraced a “leadership at all levels” approach by setting clear performance expectations and preparing leaders to succeed through training, development and executive coaching.

The OCFO also worked to develop a first-class recruiting, hiring and retention program, including 30-day milestones, peer and senior mentoring, and regular check-ins with senior leaders. Senior leaders also focused on improving customer service to internal and external partners, expecting that these efforts will lead to real-time performance and results.

Department of Transportation (DOT): In a year when most agencies lost ground, DOT registered the biggest improvement among large agencies — a distinction it also earned in 2010. According to agency employees, success starts at the top with Secretary Ray LaHood making it a personal mission to use the ratings as a tool for improving employee engagement. DOT’s senior leaders regularly host listening sessions with employees, implement ideas as appropriate and communicate the results to employees.

I’ll give you one example: scheduling conference rooms. It sounds silly, but employees were frustrated by the time wasted finding available rooms. Agency leaders took the feedback seriously and developed a new online scheduling process. Of course, it takes more than just putting out fires. DOT is focused on the long term as well, training all first-line supervisors in the core competencies of effective leadership. Significantly, it also includes in all career and political executive performance plans a standard that requires the executives to demonstrate specific actions they have taken to engage with their employees.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The FDA, which ranks 47th out of 292 agency subcomponents and which saw a 2.6 point increase in its score in 2012, is instituting a number of human-capital initiatives to improve the workplace. In addition to a major restructuring of its Office of Human Resources, FDA adopted the Office of Personnel Management’s five-tier performance appraisal system for senior executives to allow for greater distinction in performance among executives. A continued focus will be on improving executive competencies, including leadership skills and the ability to develop a well-trained and high-performing workforce. This is part of an overall effort to focus on targeted efforts to improve FDA workforce management.

Of course, this is just a starting point for uncovering the great stories about agencies and leaders who are working to engage their employees and improve government performance. If you have other examples, please share your ideas in the comment section below. You can also email me at

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