The annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government for 2021 marked the largest-ever decline in the rankings’ history for governmentwide employee engagement and satisfaction.
Agencies saw a 4.5-point decrease in 2021, compared to the 2020 numbers, the Partnership for Public Service, together with the Boston Consulting Group, reported on June 13.
The Partnership said much of the decline was due to uncertainty over agency return-to-office plans, but that wasn’t the only factor in play at the time that federal employees were filling out the Office of Personnel Management’s 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
“Telework was decreasing [and] people were starting to come back to the office nationwide,” Loren DeJonge Schulman, the Partnership’s vice president for research, evaluation and modernizing government, said at the June 13 Best Places to Work ceremony. “But then, Omicron started dominating the headlines. The federal pay raise that year was just 1%. By the end of the year, only 55% of the nominated political appointees put forward by the Biden administration had been confirmed. In other words, federal employees were dealing with a lot.”
Despite the decline, some agencies still trended upward this year in the Partnership’s rankings. Agencies that fared well, like the National Science Foundation, credited their improvement, in part, to prioritizing employees’ work-life balance, while working out the future of telework policies.
“The area we really improved in was our employee engagement and our work-life balance,” NSF Chief Human Capital Officer Wonzie Gardner told Federal News Network. “We really strived to make sure that people knew their health, safety and welfare was most important to us, while maintaining our mission.”
Coming in just behind the Government Accountability Office, NSF ranked second overall for midsize agencies and saw an uptick of 1.8 points from its 2020 score, increasing to 86 out of 100 points. It’s the highest-ever score for the agency in the history of the Partnership’s rankings, but Gardner said there is always room for improvement.
“We want to give our managers and supervisors the tools they need to make sure they can work in a hybrid environment,” he said. “A lot of times we talk about technology, and different types of systems, but the bottom line is, you need human-to-human interaction and contact. Leadership and management is so very important and critical at this time.”
Others, like the General Services Administration, also moved up a few slots in the Best Places to Work list.
“We are taking this opportunity to not recreate what was pre-pandemic, but really to launch into something that is brand new, that will work for everybody [and] that will take into consideration diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility,” GSA Deputy Administrator Katy Kale told Federal News Network.
Although GSA’s overall satisfaction score dropped 1.5 points between 2020 and 2021, the agency moved up to fourth place for midsize agencies. Kale said she prioritizes communication with employees when making policy changes, such as adjustments to office reentry plans.
“We communicate with them very often, to make sure that we are listening to what they have to say, and then thanking them for giving their feedback and making sure that we are acting upon that feedback,” she said.
Despite some of the agencies that performed well, others saw steep drops this year in the Best Places to Work rankings.
The Federal Trade Commission dropped 24.2 points. The National Endowment for the Arts fell 8.4 points. The Justice Department declined 8 points, while the Transportation Department went down by 8.1 points. Every large agency, except the Veterans Affairs Department, saw a decrease in its employee satisfaction score.
Daniel Werfel, BCG’s leader for the public sector, and a former Office of Management and Budget controller, told Federal News Network that to improve scores over time, strong leadership is key.
“One of the things that’s sobering about this year’s results is [the low score] in terms of, ‘do federal workers believe that their leaders are going to make changes as a result of this survey?’” he said. “I think the biggest thing that can be done is not just listening, but listening plus action. Sometimes even small things that don’t require a lot of investment or time, can have both substantive and symbolic impact.”
Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and CEO, said the low score for that question on the 2021 FEVS may also affect response rates for next year’s survey, which is currently out in the field for federal employees to take.
“One of the things we all ought to be concerned about is that the response rates are going down,” he told Federal News Network. “The most important thing that can be done is for agencies to actually listen, and to demonstrate that they’re listening by making changes. If that happens, then employees will respond more.”
Another area of concern is how the federal workforce compares with the private sector workforce. The Partnership reported data from employee research firm Mercer that put the private sector 14.6 points higher than the federal government for employee satisfaction.
Werfel said, though, that despite the score differences, the federal workforce is not alone in its struggle to improve employee engagement.
“We’re all going through an inflection point across industries on how to engage our workforces. Some of its generational, some of its related to the pandemic, some of its related to other mental health issues that are going on across the United States,” he said. “I don’t want to isolate the government as always lagging [behind] the private sector. In some cases, we are, and in some cases, we’re not. But I think working across industries also might make sense, not just solving it in the government by itself.”
Agencies also have unique opportunities to make improvements in next year’s iterations of both FEVS and the Best Places to Work rankings.
“The federal workforce is doing incredibly meaningful work in a way that is not accessible to the private sector,” Stier said. “But we have a long way to go to get there.”