The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) ranks dead last among mid-size agencies, but you could not tell that from the good time its employees, including the boss, had at a union holiday party Wednesday.

President Obama gestures toward Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro on July 31. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 476 took over Carmine’s Restaurant on 7th Street NW, feasted on a buffet and listened to praise from HUD Secretary Julián Castro.  Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and incoming Congress members Barbara Comstock and Don Beyer also wished the workers well. Comstock, a Republican, and Beyer, a Democrat, will join Congress next month, each representing districts in Northern Virginia.

In a brief interview, Castro said HUD is engaged in a “big push” to improve morale at the department. One example of that was the time he took to talk with many employees. He greeted everyone at the party who wanted to shake his hand or have a picture taken with him.

HUD came in  last out of 25 mid-size agencies in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings recently issued by the Partnership for Public Service. That leaves Castro with nowhere to take the department but up.

“This guy is serious about improving morale,” said Eddie Eitches, first vice president of the local.

Ashaki Robinson Johns, the local president, traced the agency’s history of poor morale to a lack of leadership. Castro just took over in July, after the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which the Partnership uses for its rankings, was completed. Johns said morale “is really bad” because of “a lack of leadership.” Some top slots were vacant too long and some supervisors “were just weak managers,” she added.

Castro “really wants to change” morale, she said, but questioned if the two years remaining in President Obama’s term is enough significantly improve a morale situation that she called “abysmal.”