It’s common to think that the nature of work in federal government organizations is different than in the private sector.

There are differences in employees’ roles, the mission or business of an organization and the products, services, and customers that private and federal organizations serve. This perception may also be reflected in the different ways management tends to deal with its workforce. The work “at will” nature of employment in the private sector, the role of unions, the evolution of retirement coverage, and other factors, such as benefits/compensation packages, tend to dictate different human resources policies and practices than has evolved in the public sector.

Despite these HR and mission differences, there are unambiguous similarities between private and federal organizations when it comes to what employees in these organizations value, what makes them satisfied with their jobs, and ultimately what makes them feel that the place where they work is the “best” fit for them. That was borne out in a just-released report that explored how satisfied federal employees are with their work.

In the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” report, the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte analyzed the responses of nearly 700,000 federal employees to a governmentwide survey conducted by the government’s Office of Personnel Management. The report examined a number of drivers that influence employee satisfaction. In 2012, effective leadership, work/life balance, and the match between agency mission and employee skills were all high drivers of employee satisfaction.

But the Partnership also compared several (13 in all) satisfaction drivers of federal employees with their private sector counterparts. They found that the government’s scores on all 13 drivers were lower than comparable private sector scores available from other surveys.

The take away from that difference, however, is this: The ability for federal agencies to increase these satisfaction scores is not dependent upon, or potentially hindered by, structural differences in HR policies and practices between federal and private sector organizations. In other words, it doesn’t require structural reform. Rather the levers for improvement lie in the hands of effective leaders and their ability to breed an environment that rewards cooperation.

Take for example the following questions that showed a more than five-point gap in satisfaction between federal and private sector employees:

  • How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization?
  • The people I work with cooperate to get the job done.
  • Overall, how good a job do you feel is being done by your immediate supervisor/team leader?

The percent of positive federal employee responses to the questions above trailed positive responses in the private sector by 17%, 9%, and 8% respectively. While these gaps represent sizable differences in satisfaction with employees’ jobs, they are related to satisfaction drivers that can be improved upon without significant changes to federal HR policies or labor regulations.

So while we believe that structural or policy changes to modernize a civil service system designed for a different era should be pursued, we do not believe that agency leaders must wait for fundamental structural reform to drive improved employee (and therefore mission) performance.

More to the point, by employing a short list of practices, federal leaders can make a significant impact not only in improving employee satisfaction, but also improving their ability to compete with the private sector for top talent.

So what are both leading private and public sector organizations doing to improve performance and their ability to compete for (and retain) top talent?

1. They are using performance management as a powerful, year-round development and recognition system, not as once-a-year process driven checklist exercise. Several agencies are making great strides through the strategic use of non-monetary rewards and recognition, including providing opportunities for their top performers to rotate through a variety of experiences, to receive formal 360-degree feedback and coaching, or to receive additional learning/leadership development.

2. They are analyzing real data to conduct root cause analysis at the drivers of employee satisfaction and performance. For progressive federal agencies, the ability to “drill down” into data at an office/geography level has enabled the creation of tailored engagement plans much closer to where the employees reside. This shifts the responsibility for engagement from one or two very senior agency executives to the leaders “in the field” responsible for driving their teams on a daily basis. Instead of having one strategy for the whole agency, customized approaches which consider the nuances of one particular business unit can be much easier to develop. The presence of data also provides a counterbalance to the leadership-by-anecdote approach often employed.

3. They are communicating more frequently, more transparently, and are listening better. As the data above shows, this dimension offers one of the largest gaps between public and private…and yet the solutions to excel are quite simple to implement. True “straight talk” town hall sessions and a commitment to soliciting ideas for agency improvement via online Idea Hubs are cost-effective, high-impact ways to move the needle.

4. They are actively engaging and idea sharing with similar organizations. Opportunities abound to learn from the successes and failures of others…but not everyone takes advantage. Some organizations are insular and believe that they are “so unique” that the experiences of others are not relevant. Very often, these organizations lose ground competitively because they miss chances to absorb “what’s working and what isn’t” beyond their walls. For federal agencies, the benefit of finding forums to network with and learn from their private sector peers (for example, a federal CHCO with a private CHRO) is invaluable.

Real differences in how federal and private sector organizations work continue to exist today. These differences are both structural and cultural but as the Best Places to Work survey reveals, the ability to improve upon the main drivers of employee satisfaction is not dependent upon changes in Federal HR policy. To improve employee satisfaction Federal organizations should look first to areas where they can do a better job “competing” with the private sector. Focusing on the four strategies above are some of the “best” places to start.

Dan Helfrich, Principal and Federal Human Capital Practice Leader, Deloitte Consulting.