Not long after Sheila Bair was appointed to chair the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in 2006, senior officials at the FDIC sat down in a series of meetings to discuss what to do about a disturbing statistic.

“We couldn’t figure out why our agency was 25th in the rankings” of employee satisfaction, recalled Ira Kitmacher, manager for culture change and senior adviser at FDIC.

So began “a number of projects to improve employee engagement,” beginning with Bair’s decision to make employee engagement a central part of the agency’s culture, Kitmacher said, speaking yesterday at a conference for government human capital executives.

FDIC officials visited leading corporations, including Google and Southwest Airlines, he said, to study how their top leaders fostered environments that bred trust and employee empowerment. That led to the development of a set of core values: integrity, teamwork, effectiveness, accountability and fairness.

“We had voice mails from (Bair) around our core values and quarterly call-ins with the chairwoman. We created a culture-change council and collaborated with our union,” he said. Performance appraisals were developed that emphasized employee engagement.

“We’ve tried very hard to take a holistic approach,” he said.

Those and dozens of related efforts paid off.

When the Partnership for Public Service earlier today announced this year’s rankings of the “Best Places to Work” in the federal government, the FDIC had risen from the 3rd place last year to the top of the list of 33 large federal agencies with a job satisfaction score of 85.9 out of 100.

(Pictured above during Best Places to Work announcement today, from left to right: Arleas Upton Kea, Acting FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg, Ira Kitmacher, Pam Mergen and Nancy Hughes.)

Engaging Employees
The FDIC’s story is one of many where government agencies have begun to internalize, and act on, the job satisfaction data reflected in the “Best Places to Work” rankings–and the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey on which the rankings are based. (See the list of most improved agencies below.)

Another agency that showed significant improvement is the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which saw its job satisfaction index score rise from 19.5 percent in 2009 to 68.3 percent last year, and to 76.3 percent this year.

Vicki Barber, human resources director for FLRA, attributed the huge turn around to the decision to bring “HR back in the house.”

Barber explained that FRLA officials, when pressed to concentrate staff resources around its mission, opted to outsource its human resources work. Recognizing the pendulum had swung too far, FLRA officials decided they needed a “strategic performance goal that included an HR component, and got funding to support that,” said Barber.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, was among those who noticed FRLA’s meteoric rise from the basement in the rankings to its number 7 rank in job satisfaction among small agencies now.

“That’s strictly leadership,” Palguta said. And a “passion about the mission and engagement with employees.”

“With FDIC, I think (in years past) they focused on putting out fires and not being particularly focused on employee engagement. You’ve got to do both. You’ve got to decide which fires you’re going to put out and engage your employees at the same time.”

The new rankings released in the “Best Places to Work” report highlighted gains in job satisfaction at a number of agencies. Among large agencies:

  • The Office of Personnel Management raised its employee satisfaction score by 5.3 percent over the past year and shot up in the rankings from 14th to 9th place.
  • The Justice Department has improved its score by 22 percent since the first rankings in 2003, but narrowly missed the top 10 this year.
  • The State Department’s score is up 19 percent since 2003; it has been ranked as one of the top ten large agencies since 2005.

Among small agencies making notable gains over the past year:

  • Selective Service System (+31 percent)
  • Federal Labor Relations Authority (+11.6 percent)
  • International Boundary and Water Commission (+ 11.2 percent)

There also were some dramatic year-over-year improvements among agency subcomponents:

Within the Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Mint increased its employee satisfaction score by 21.2 percent, while the department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing registered a 16.6 percent increase.

Palguta saw the increase as significant: “The Treasury has a lot of blue collar workers. They’re engraving coins and running printing presses. They’re not sexy, high-paying jobs and they’ve been able to engage with their employees and see big gains,” he said.

The Office of Postsecondary Education, part of the Department of Education, improved by 20.8 percent in the 2011 regarding employee job satisfaction, but still ranked 239th out of 240 agency subcomponents.

Most Improved Large Agencies

Ranks Agency
% Change
1 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 85.9 79.2 8.5
9 Office of Personnel Management 69.4 65.8 5.3
21 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 62.0 60.2 3.0
29 Department of Education 57.8 57.3 0.8
8 Intelligence Community 69.5 69.0 0.7
28 Small Business Administration 57.9 57.7 0.3
17 Department of Veterans Affairs 63.8 63.6 0.3

Most Improved Small Agencies


% Change
25 Selective Service System 62.0 47.4 31.0
7 Federal Labor Relations Authority 76.3 68.3 11.6
31 International Boundary and Water Commission 53.5 48.0 11.4
32 Broadcasting Board of Governors 53.2 49.5 7.4
24 National Labor Relations Board 64.6 61.3 5.4

Most Improved Agency Components

% Change
U.S. Mint (Treasury) 68.5 56.5 21.2
239 Office of Postsecondary Education (ED) 39.7 32.9 20.8
174 Bureau of Engraving and Printing (Treasury) 60.0 51.5 16.6
94 Secret Service (DHS) 65.8 59.0 11.5
171 Office of the Chief Financial Officer (USDA) 60.4 54.7 10.4
98 U.S. Army Medical Command (Army) 65.5 60.0 9.1
161 Office of the Solicitor (Interior) 61.3 56.3 8.9
110 U.S. Army Accessions Command (Army) 64.8 59.7 8.5
37 Federal Investigative Service (OPM) 70.9 65.5 8.3
185 Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (ED) 58.7 54.3 8.1

A number of agencies experienced a decline in employee satisfaction; but some more than others.

Among large agencies: the National Archives and Records Administration had the largest drop of 7.1 percent.

It was followed by the Securities and Exchange Commission with a 5.9 percent decline, the third year in a row that the financial regulator has lost ground among its employees.

Among the small agencies, the Federal Maritime Commission fell 18.8 percent while Office of the U.S. Trade Representative dropped 16.8 percent and was ranked last among small agencies.

“No government agency can get the job done without people. You can have technology and other resources but without the workforce you can’t get the job done,” said Palguta.

The following links will take readers to Best Places to Work website rankings:

Deanna Glick assisted with reporting for this story.