The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, at sunset.
Kevin Voelker Photography / Getty Images

Employee engagement is essential to the success of any organization. Federal agency leaders need to know how their employees are feeling, particularly when it comes to the work they do, the supervision they have and the leadership they have.

Employees in federal agencies take the Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey each year which asks them to rate their work environment on a variety of questions. This information is then analyzed by the Partnership for Public Service to create the annual report of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government®.

Now in its tenth iteration, the 2015 results have a long history upon which to track improvement and decline in each of the 14 categories measured. For comparison purposes, the results are broken down into large, mid-size and small agencies. This makes sense because the size of an organization dictates its most likely challenges. For instance, large organizations continuously face communication challenges, and small agencies are challenged by limited advancement opportunities for their staff. It doesn't make much sense for an agency of 10,000 employees to compare itself to one that has 100 employees.

After several years of declining overall scores, the federal government saw an increase from a government-wide composite score of 56.9 out of 100 in 2014 to 58.1 in 2015. The Partnership’s best guess on why scores improved is “a rebound by the workforce from events such as the 2013 across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, the partial government shutdown that same year that resulted in the furlough of more than 800,000 employees and three years of pay freezes that ended in 2014.”  

The Best Large Agencies in 2015

Once again, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration took the top spot among large agencies. Year after year, NASA shows up at or near the top of the Best Places rankings for large agencies. The organization is a perennial powerhouse for employee engagement.

Though they only rose two spots from #10 to #8, the Department of Labor posted a 4.4-point increase in composite score from 2014 to 2015.

Here are the top ten large agencies in 2015:

  1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (76.1)
  2. Intelligence Community (67.1)
  3. Department of Justice (66.3)
  4. Department of State (66.3)
  5. Department of Commerce (66.2)
  6. Social Security Administration (66.0)
  7. Department of Health and Human Services (63.9)
  8. Department of Labor (63.1)
  9. Department of Transportation (63.1)
  10. Department of the Air Force (60.0)

The Best Mid-Size Agencies in 2015

Among mid-size agencies, the first place and second place organizations from 2014 switched places in 2015 with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation edging out the Peace Corps. The Federal Communications Commission tumbled from last year’s #9 spot down to #18 thanks to an 8-point drop in composite score.  

Here are the top ten mid-size agencies in 2015:

  1. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (81.1)
  2. Peace Corps (79.7)
  3. Government Accountability Office (78.5)
  4. Federal Trade Commission (77.6)
  5. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (75.5)
  6. Smithsonian Institution (74.7)
  7. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (73.7)
  8. National Credit Union Administration (71.7)
  9. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (71.7)
  10. Securities and Exchange Commission (68.6)

The Best Small Agencies in 2015

Small agencies posted larger swings in scores than mid-size and large agencies.

Taking the #1 spot in 2015 is 2014’s #5, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation gained 13.6 points on its composite score to take it from #5 in 2014 to #2 in 2015.

Here are the top ten small agencies in 2015:

  1. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (87.1)
  2. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (86.4)
  3. Federal Labor Relations Authority (85.2)
  4. National Endowment for the Humanities (81.3)
  5. Surface Transportation Board (79.8)
  6. Office of Management and Budget (77.5)
  7. U.S. International Trade Commission (75.5)
  8. Merit Systems Protection Board (73.0)
  9. Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (72.9)
  10. National Transportation Safety Board (69.7)  

Agency Groupings by Mission  

A new feature the Partnership has provided for 2015 is the ability to compare federal agencies with similar missions.

Agencies can be categorized into one of the following mission areas:

  • Public health
  • Law enforcement
  • National security
  • Energy and environment
  • Financial regulation
  • Oversight

If agencies are going to lose employees to other federal agencies, similar agencies are where those job seekers are going to look first. If nothing else, the rankings may spur some friendly competition.  

Category Rankings  

When leaders look at each category, they can tell where they’re doing well in employee engagement, and where their organizations need improvement. The Best Places to Work question categories are shown below in order of their government-wide composite scores for 2015:

  1. Employee Skills–Mission Match (75.2)
  2. Teamwork (62.9)
  3. Effective Leadership: Supervisors (62.8)
  4. Innovation (60.0)
  5. Work–Life Balance (59.1)
  6. Training and Development (57.5)
  7. Support for Diversity (55.6)
  8. Pay (54.2)
  9. Effective Leadership: Fairness (52.5)
  10. Strategic Management (52.3)
  11. Effective Leadership (51.6)
  12. Effective Leadership: Empowerment (44.1)
  13. Effective Leadership: Senior Leaders (43.8)
  14. Performance-Based Rewards and Advancement (42.4)

Based on this information, it appears federal employees believe their skills fit well with their organizations’ missions. This is an incredibly powerful characteristic for an employer to possess. Even when employees have a bad day, they can take heart in their belief that the agency does valuable work and that they make tangible contributions to that work.

They also exhibit strong teamwork under effective supervision. Good teams and competent supervision are critical to retaining employees. People who work in dysfunctional teams and for unsupportive or inept supervisors quickly disengage and begin looking for better workplaces. Fortunately, the federal government is relatively strong in these two workplace facets.

On the negative side, many of the leadership categories rank at the bottom indicating staff do not have much confidence in their upper levels of leadership. Based on the data in this year's Best Places report, the big picture of management in the federal government appears to be that people have confidence in their direct bosses but have significantly less faith in their organizational leaders.

In the very last place among categories is performance-based rewards and advancement which shows federal employees are dissatisfied with processes and decisions on awarding merit raises and job promotions. This could also indicate employees do not see themselves as having a future with their current employers.

Good leaders at federal agencies study the information provided in the Best Place report. They look at their own organizations, similar organizations in the federal government and the government as a whole. Employees expect leaders to take action to make their workplaces better. The measure of leaders' success is how scores improve over time.

When agencies have poor scores, they should take dramatic actions in hope to see dramatic improvements. When organizations have strong scores, they hope to maintain or improve slightly. These employers do not need to take dramatic actions. Rather, they should tweak their existing programs to maximize return on investment. In either case, leaders take action based on employee engagement data to make better work environments for their employees.