Implications on the first ever ranking of federal agencies by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation to promote excellence and improve performance within government

Making the federal government a “best place to work”: implications on the first ever ranking of federal agencies by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation to promote excellence and improve performance within government

Phil Beekman

When the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation (ISPPI) released the first ever rankings of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government this past fall, people inside and outside of government took note. While workplace satisfaction rankings are old hat in the private sector–Fortune, AARP Magazine, Working Mother, and Computer World are among those now publishing specialized rankings–the public sector had remained largely untouched. The outpouring of interest in rankings of federal agencies (the Best Places Web site has garnered over 1.6 million hits since going live) signals a substantial appetite for information useful to those considering a career in public service. But this endeavor is not just geared toward those eager to answer the call to serve; a second and equally important goal is to inspire excellence in government performance.

Over the past two years, the Partnership has worked to help federal agencies make government the employer of choice for talented, dedicated Americans. One way to create an environment that fosters satisfaction and commitment is paying attention to the issues that matter most to employees. But while private sector firms have been using satisfaction surveys to tap the input of their employees for years, survey use in the public sector has been spotty at best. Our hope in creating the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ( is to give management a tool that focuses attention on the voices of their employees, the people who know government workplaces best.

The initial rankings provide a roadmap to better performance; marking what we hope will be the first round in a long-term effort to create an accurate and substantive measure of federal agency progress. Employee satisfaction plays a critical role in high performing organizations; by leveraging the needs and the knowledge of their employees, managers and leaders can make great strides in making their organization a “best place to work.”

The Importance of Being a “Best Place To Work”

In the past few years, the federal government has faced unprecedented challenges; from protecting the nation from terrorist threats and responding to corporate malfeasance to internal transformation such as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. These challenges make high performance from our government institutions and from the 1.8 million civilian employees who work in government more important than ever.

Creating a Performance Culture Within Government …

Metrics, or systems for measurement, are playing an increasingly important role in the federal human resources management dialogue. The President’s Management Agenda (PMA), the Bush administration’s initiative to adopt sound management practices, has served as the impetus for some of this attention. The central task of the PMA is to establish standards for success, measure and track agency performance across the federal government, and hold agency leadership responsible through a simple yet substantive scorecard. With human capital as the first of the five priorities articulated in the PMA, the past few years have seen a flurry of new attention inside government related to strategic management of employees. But the difficult issue is not convincing agency managers and leaders, including human resources managers, about the importance of metrics; the challenge is identifying metrics that are a meaningful and useful tool to help judge performance.

In the private sector, overall performance metrics can be relatively straightforward: profits, stock value, and productivity. But in the public sector, where missions vary widely and agencies are not limited to creating products or offering services, the issue is more difficult. Luckily for managers concerned about human capital, we can draw some similarities across sectors. Evidence in the private sector links high employee engagement, commitment, and satisfaction to increased productivity, higher customer satisfaction, and profitability. If employees in the public sector are not substantially different, satisfied and committed employees would be more productive, more attuned to the needs of their customer (the American people), and more successful at accomplishing the critical goals of their agency’s mission.

Employee satisfaction data is a major contributor to what is often referred to as a balanced scorecard approach. Use of this approach–where managers take into account multiple dimensions of performance, from achieving results, to assuring both customer and employee satisfaction–has taken root in the private sector in the past few years. In the long run, the federal government hopes to measure agency performance by linking the programs and actions of agencies to specific performance outcomes. But while the difficult work of identifying those outcomes continues, agency managers and leaders can begin to utilize the tools in hand. Employee satisfaction data (much of which has already been collected from their workforce) can be a vital tool right now.

… To Attract and Retain the People Government Needs

At the same time that the federal government is under increasing pressure to perform, it is struggling to attract and retain the best and the brightest. In the 2002 Federal Human Capital Survey, only 39 percent of federal employees agreed that their organization “is able to recruit people with the rights skills.” Indeed, too few of the most promising potential employees choose to even consider federal service as an attractive option. A September 2002 Hart/Teeter poll sponsored by the Partnership showed that only one in four college educated workers expressed significant interest in working for the federal government.

Making matters worse, many managers worry that they do not have the resources or flexibility to retain the highly-skilled employees that are already working in the federal government. With the average age of federal employees increasing (from 43 to 46 in the past 10 years), and half of federal workers eligible to retire in the next five years (for supervisors the statistic is nearly 70 percent), the challenge is particularly acute. The federal government, which has historically depended on more experienced workers who choose to stay well beyond the point of retirement eligibility, must make employee satisfaction a top priority. This will help government retain employees with needed experience and make government an attractive option for people looking to make public service an important part of their career.

Employee satisfaction and commitment can play a critical role in transforming government into a workplace that values high-level performance and attracts top talent. High-performing employees seek out employers that possess a clear mission and goals, quality leadership, a culture of performance that rewards and recognizes achievement, empowered employees who use their skills, and finally, a workplace where employees enjoy a high quality of life. Taken together, these attributes, which closely align with the ranking categories we identify in the Best Places to Work rankings, are the building blocks that make an organization an “employer of choice” or a “best place to work” (see Table 1).

The Federal Government’s “Best Places to Work”

In early 2003, the Partnership and ISPPI set out to answer several questions about federal agencies:

* What federal agencies have the highest employee commitment and satisfaction?

* What factors drive that commitment and satisfaction?

* What can managers and leaders learn from their peers to make every federal agency a great place to work?

Starting with data collected in the US Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM’s) 2002 Federal Human Capital Survey (FHCS), the Partnership and ISPPI created a general measure of overall employee satisfaction, called the Best Places to Work Index. This index combined employee responses to four general questions related to overall employee satisfaction. Using more specialized questions on the survey, we also created measures for 10 work environment categories ranging from Effective Leadership to Work/Life Balance (referred to as the Best in Class categories). The overall ranking, and the rankings for the 10 work environment categories, refine and summarize the most vital information from the FHCS. The Web site ( also lists the rank of each agency in each category, making comparisons explicit.

Best Places to Work

Employees Rank the Federal Agencies

With managers being asked to do more, faster, and often with fewer resources, pinpointing the issues that matter in improving overall employee satisfaction is one of the most important management tasks. Thus, Best Places was designed to be more than just rankings; the project can help federal managers and leaders prioritize a management agenda for their agency or sub-agency. With a statistical model constructed and implemented by CFI Group and based on a variation of the American Customer Satisfaction Index methodology, we determined the impact of each of the work environment categories on the overall index score. By answering both the question of what employees say “drives” their satisfaction and how agencies are doing in those areas, Best Places helps to focus attention and resources on the work environment areas that will provide the biggest boost to overall employee satisfaction and, in the long run, to agency performance.

The Management “Message” of Best Places

Best Places reveals that three key aspects of the federal work environment are the top drivers of employee satisfaction: effective leadership, fully utilizing the skills of talented employees, and a sense of teamwork and collaboration. Therefore, if managers want to increase employee satisfaction in their organizations, they should begin by examining employee feedback in these three fundamental areas.

While good leaders are identified as the key to a satisfying work environment, the governmentwide score for effective leadership is among the worst of the 10 categories ranked by federal workers. This is particularly troubling as the federal government takes on challenges like modernizing the civil service and adopting the latest innovations in information technology. Leaders are involved in nearly every initiative that takes flight in an organization, and are responsible for ensuring that their employees are engaged participants in every process. Trouble at the top can quickly cascade down to the rest of the organization. If federal employees do not have confidence in their leadership, agencies will have difficulty implementing even the most basic policy changes.

When assessing how their work aligns with agency mission, a large majority of employees recognize the core strength of public service: the ability to make a difference. Almost all federal workers surveyed (91 percent) said they believe the work they do is important, and 89 percent of them understand the link between their work and their agency’s mission. However, these employees also say that they could be doing more to advance the agency’s overarching goals. Considering that only one-third of federal employees think their leaders generate a high level of motivation, the troubling picture that emerges is one of a disengaged workforce at a time when our nation faces increasing challenges at home and abroad.

The issue of teamwork is another mixed picture for federal workers. Federal employees believe that they and their coworkers enthusiastically share knowledge and work collaboratively across organizational lines to get their jobs done. But they believe their leaders could do more to increase the flow of agency-wide communication. Given the many challenges that confront the federal government, it is critical that managers explore opportunities to promote greater information sharing, teamwork, and collaboration throughout their organizations.

Governmentwide Priority Matrix

The matrix presents these priorities graphically (see Figure 1). Strategic managers and leaders will focus on improving high impact but low performing categories (those in the bottom right quadrant). Overall, the government’s top priority is improving Effective Leadership. Because the federal government does relatively well in both Teamwork and Employee Skills/Mission Match, these are shown as areas where managers and leaders can continue to build on their success (top right quadrant). Employees rate the areas in the left two quadrants of the matrix as lower impact drivers of employee satisfaction when compared to the other factors identified in the matrix.

Making Employee Input Count

Employee surveys are not a silver bullet–simply administering a survey does not necessarily do anything to address organizational problems (indeed, many managers would say they do the opposite, adding more challenges to an already lengthy list). But employee satisfaction data can be an invaluable tool. Its main value comes when managers and leaders do more than merely listen to what employees are saying, but instead act on the information they are hearing. According to David Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States, “leading organizations commonly seek their employees’ input on a periodic basis and explicitly address and use that input to adjust their human capital approaches.” Indeed, a US General Accounting Office (GAO) report lists incorporating employee input into the design and implementation of human capital policies and practices as one of 10 key human capital principles in use at leading private sector organizations.


Stories of Success …

The 2002 GAO report cites Federal Express and lumber giant Weyerhaeuser as examples of firms that “sought to draw on employees’ frontline knowledge of work processes and customer needs and to empower employees to contribute constructive ideas for improvement.” Federal Express has conducted employee surveys for 25 years, continually integrating the results into a “survey-feedback-action” process that ensures results are discussed with frontline employees, and that action items and responsibility percolate up. Weyerhaeuser sees its employee surveys as a way to identify key challenges within the organization, and organizes crosscutting employee teams to address them. Private sector organizations have embraced employee surveys because they can be a key tool for good management.

High profile examples of corporate leaders collecting input through employee surveys abound. This past November Fortune profiled Dell Computer in an article subtitled “A Look at the Management Secrets of the Best-Run Company in Technology.” It detailed how Michael Dell, the billionaire founder of the company, used employee feedback data to pinpoint problems in his organization. After he discovered that employees were turned off by his detached interpersonal style, that loyalty to the company was low, and that many employees said they were considering leaving, Dell went to work to address the employee input head-on by focusing on the areas where employees said the leadership team was lacking.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a self-funding government agency that is part of the US Department of Energy, is a public sector model for making employee input count. As BPA leadership faced the rapidly changing environment of deregulation in the 1990s, it turned to a basic set of management principles that put the focus on BPA’s people. The agency uses employee feedback (captured through regularly administered surveys) as a key metric for performance, and set targets at private sector benchmarks to encourage high impact change. To ensure that survey results are taken seriously, BPA leadership has tied results to its managers’ contracts, and in turn to managers’ performance ratings and pay.

Leaders at Dell, Federal Express, and BPA among others, recognize that employee surveys can tie management to the frontlines of an organization, and they have used this tool to create an organizational culture that values and makes use of employee feedback.

… Represent a Model for Change

Too often the distance that separates a leader and the rank and file employee results in managers and executives who are isolated from the most difficult challenges that their organizations face. Employees are craving communication with their leaders, better collaboration between the different parts of their organizations, and more input in the areas that most affect their everyday lives. And it’s not just in the private sector; employees in the public sector want to share their viewpoints as well.

Again, data from OPM’s 2002 Federal Human Capital Survey confirms this disconnect in the federal government. Only 43 percent of non-supervisor employees report positive responses when asked if they are satisfied with the information they receive from management on what’s going on in the organization, while less than half of federal employees who are not supervisors feel their managers promote communication among work units. In addition, 25 percent of federal workers are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect their work.


In an atmosphere where pay and benefits are largely fixed and many personnel policies are set at a governmentwide level, some managers might think employee surveys are a waste of time and resources. But taking the pulse of their workforce can be a vital tool that can help managers understand what their organization’s challenges are, and help them pinpoint the areas that matter most for their organization’s long-term success.

Congress Hears the Call

Perhaps indicating an idea whose time has come, legislation was passed last fall (H.R. 1588, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2004), that directs executive agencies to conduct annual employee surveys to assess “leadership and management practices that contribute to agency performance, employee satisfaction with leadership policies and practices, work environment, rewards and recognition for professional accomplishment and personal contributions to achieving organizational mission, opportunity for professional development and growth, and opportunity to contribute to achieving organizational mission.”

For those whose calls for employee surveys have long been ignored, the legislation calls on agency leaders to implement at least the basics. It requires that agency surveys contain a core of questions governmentwide to allow for comparison between different agency workforces, and that all results will be made available to the general public on agency Web sites. Congress is clearly urging federal leaders to recognize the value of employee input and fully integrate surveys into their management agenda.

Turning a Mandate into Management Success

The survey requirement presents an incredible opportunity for managers. To realize the benefits of employee surveys in the federal government, agency managers and leaders should:

* Use the employee survey to bolster calls for organizational improvement and effectiveness;

* Find an organizational champion for the survey to ensure that it is implemented properly and that adequate follow up occurs;

* Implement a survey that can identify reoccurring issues within your organization, and pinpoint issues down to the work unit level;

* Use employee survey results to open lines of communication between employees, managers, and leaders;

* Share the results with employees and integrate them into follow-up activities;

* Use employee survey results to craft an agenda for real change and set targets for improvement;

* Hold people accountable for meeting improvement goals;

* Focus attention on high impact areas;

* Use the Best Places rankings to establish a healthy competitiveness in your organization by comparing scores between workgroups and between agencies; and

* Repeat the survey regularly to see trends (and hopefully improvements) over time.


For any organization, being thought of as a great place to work by one’s own employees is a source of pride. But it turns out more than pride is at stake. Employee satisfaction and commitment are two of the necessary ingredients in developing and sustaining a high performing organization, and in particular, to attracting and keeping the employees that organizations need to maximize their output and impact. While many factors go into creating high performing organizations, our rankings of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government is a first step toward recognizing the importance of employee satisfaction and commitment. While the rankings may have gotten most of the attention and publicity, their internal impact could be far more important in the long term if government managers and leaders formulate a proactive management agenda to address employee satisfaction.

TABLE 1 Federal Employees Rank the Agencies


National Science Foundation 2

Office of Management and Budget 3

General Services Administration 4

Environmental Protection Agency 5

Office of Personnel Management 6

U.S. Air Force 7

Department of Commerce 8 (tie)

Department of the Interior 8 (tie)

Department of the Army 10

Philip Beekman works for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the federal civil service. For more information about the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, go to

COPYRIGHT 2004 Bureaucrat, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning