Feds generally happier at work, but leadership satisfaction lags in Best Places to Work

The concerted effort agencies have put into improving employee engagement is paying off, but as the rankings in the 2016 Best Places to Work show, it will take more time and energy to rebuild from a four-year downward spiral.

For the second consecutive year, employee engagement rose in 2016, this time by 1.3 points for an overall score of 59.4. But agencies still largely lag behind the private sector, where engagement sits at about 77 points, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which publishes the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.

And agencies lag far behind their all-time high score of 65 points from 2010.

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Federal employees generally feel more satisfied this year with their agency’s ability to innovate, support for diversity and training and development. In fact, scores for all 10 categories that the Partnership measured rose by at least half a point. But employees are still largely unhappy with opportunities for performance-based rewards and promotions, as well as with their leadership, despite advances in those categories this year.

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“We found that the federal government has a highly mission-focused workforce but poor leadership,” the Partnership for Public Service wrote in its Best Places to Work report. “This is troubling because effective leadership remains the key driver as it has been every year since the rankings were launched in 2003.”

Many familiar faces appear at the top of the 2016 rankings, but a few dark horses of recent years made significant improvements as well — a sign that agencies’ work on employee engagement is never finished.

“Employee engagement is part of the unfinished and never-ending business of government management, which is not an end in itself but the means to more effectively meet the needs of the American people,” the Partnership said in its report.

Once again, NASA improved employee engagement for the fifth consecutive year and sits at the top of the Best Places to Work rankings in 2016. The agency’s success, in large part, depends on the focus of its leadership, said Mallory Barg Bulman, research director at the Partnership.

“They haven’t rested on their laurels,”she said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “NASA’s been the top large agency since 2012, and the score has continued to improve every year.”

Top 5 Best Places to Work (Large Agencies)
Agency Score Change
NASA 78.6 ⇑ 2.5
Commerce Department 67.9 ⇑ 1.7
Intelligence Community 67.0 ⇓ 0.1
State Department 66.8 ⇑ 0.5
Health and Human Services Department 66.4  ⇑ 2.5

Though it didn’t make the top five, the Agriculture Department saw the biggest improvement over the past year, which raised its score by 3.7 points and jumped from 16th to 9th in the rankings.

And for the first time in six years, the Homeland Security Department improved its score, though it’s still ranked last among large agencies. DHS went up to a score of 45.8, a 2.7 point increase over 2015’s marks and the second biggest increase among large agencies.

The Social Security Administration suffered the biggest drop in employee engagement among large agencies in 2016. Its score dipped by 2.9 points this year and now sits in the middle of the pack.

“They have a large number of retirement-eligible individuals in their senior leadership, and it sounds like it’s really time to invest in the Social Security Administration,” Barg Bulman said. “We know the demands on that agency are going to get higher in the years to come and need to make sure they’re ready for that.”

Top 5 Best Places to Work (Midsize Agencies)
Agency Score Change
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 80.7 ⇓ 0.4 
Peace Corps (tie) 79.7  0.0
Government Accountability Office (tie) 79.7  ⇑ 1.2
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 79.0  ⇑ 3.5
Federal Trade Commission 78.3  ⇑ 0.7

The Securities and Exchange Commission saw the most improvement of any midsize agency in 2016, boosting engagement by 7.5 points for a total of about 76.

For the fifth time in six years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saw its score drop. Engagement fell 3.5 points in 2016, the largest decline among any of the medium-sized agencies.

Top 5 Best Places to Work (Small Agencies)
Agency Score Change
National Endowment for the Arts 85.9 ⇑ 16.6
Overseas Private Investment Corporation 84.7 ⇓ 1.7
Office of Management and Budget 82.7 ⇑ 5.2
Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service 82.3 ⇓ 4.8
Federal Labor Relations Authority 80.2 ⇓ 5.0

The top-ranking National Endowment for the Arts rose from the 11th spot in 2015 to number one in 2016.

The Surface Transportation Board slipped in the rankings this year and had the largest decline in engagement out of 29 small agencies. Once at the top of the list in 2014, the agency dropped nearly 15 points this year.

At just 28.4, the Federal Election Commission ranks last among the small agencies and has the lowest score of any organization in government.

Top 5 Best Places to Work (Subcomponents)
Agency Score Change
Office of Inspector General (Tennessee Valley Authority) 93.3 ⇓ 3.0
Environment and Natural Resources Division (DoJ) 85.9 ⇑ 2.7
Office of Financial Management (SEC) 83.4 n/a
Office of Energy Market Regulation (FERC) 83.2 ⇑ 4.3
U.S. Army Audit Agency 82.8 ⇓ 1.3

The Secret Service sits at the bottom of 305 subcomponents with a score just below 33 points. It’s the fifth consecutive year the agency lost ground on employee engagement.

See the full rankings of 18 large agencies, 27 medium agencies, 29 small agencies and 305 subcomponents.