For most federal workers — a hardy and loyal bunch — the answer remains yes.
That’s reflected in the Best Places rankings that are being released Tuesday by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that strives to improve the federal government, and the Boston Consulting Group.
The good news is the reputation of the government as a place to work didn’t drop much, despite good reasons to expect a fall. The overall federal employee engagement score fell to 61.7, only a 0.5-point drop from 2018.
Scores on engagement, roughly analogous to morale, are based on three survey questions: Would you recommend your agency as a place to work? How satisfied are you with your job? How satisfied are you with your organization?
“On the heels of the largest or longest shutdown that we’ve ever had in our government, I would have anticipated more decline. . .,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and CEO. “One of the things that stands out for me, and I’ve certainly been giving this a lot of thought, is just the resiliency of the federal workforce. I mean, it’s really quite extraordinary. They take a licking and they keep on ticking.”
“Resiliency” is another way of saying federal employees put up with a lot of mess but remain focused on their missions as public servants. About 800,000 of the 2.1 million federal workers were not allowed to work during President Trump’s 35-day partial government shutdown that began just before Christmas.
The appointments tracker published by The Washington Post and the partnership indicates about one-third of key appointed positions in the Trump administration lack confirmed officials. The administration at one point unsuccessfully sought to freeze federal pay while slashing retirement benefits and often has been seen as hostile to federal employees.
The Best Places report is based largely on the government’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which was administered between May and early July.
Among the various ups and downs in the ratings, certain important indicators changed less than 1 percentage point. Ratings for training and performance-based awards and advancement were up, as was effective leadership. But views on pay and the administration’s support for diversity dropped.
Those items and others must improve if federal employee engagement is to match that in the private sector, which rates 15 points higher.
“Only 11 of the government’s 70 large, midsize and small agencies included in the Best Places to Work rankings scored above the private sector average this year, including NASA, the Federal Trade Commission and the Peace Corps,” according to the partnership.
NASA, the perennial champion, is the top large agency for the eighth straight year. The Department of Health and Human Services, in second place among large agencies, improved for five years running.
Best among midsize agencies is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, while the International Trade Commission leads the small agency group.
Among agency subcomponents, the Office of the Inspector General at the Tennessee Valley Authority is tops for the fourth time since 2015. Kudos to the Secret Service, which increased its rating by more than 20 points since 2016, and to the Selective Service System, whose 17.1-point jump this year was the most of any agency.
Among the lower scores, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Education Department, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office rank last in the large, midsize, small and subcomponent agency listings, respectively.
One agency justly proud of its record is the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General. Its Best Places engagement score leaped nearly 24 points from 47 in 2015 to 70.9 this year.
“We have made a concerted effort to focus on employee engagement because our employees are our key asset,” said Glenn A. Fine, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general. “We need them to go the extra mile to perform the critically important work, so we have made this a priority of ours.”
How did he do that?
“I think the most important thing is we communicate more,” he said, noting his 90 office visits to employees around the world since he took over in January 2016. His managers also meet with staffers regularly. “That’s very, very helpful,” he said. The office holds brown bag lunches for employees and uses “employee engagement councils” to gather staff views.
During a time when Congress is focused on big things like Trump’s impeachment, small things can make a big difference. At one point, Fine’s employees couldn’t get assigned parking spots in their office building, which is south of the Pentagon, even though many spaces were unused.
“I went all the way up to the secretary of defense and asked him about that . . . and as a result, we got new spots,” Fine recalled. “One minute we’d be talking about, you know, oversight in the wars in Iraq and Syria. Next minute, I would ask him for parking. And it sounds trivial, but it’s important.”