A Q&A with Max Stier, president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, about the nonprofit's 2013 rankings of the best places to

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, says leadership, more than any other factor, shapes how federal employees view their workplaces. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / December 26, 2013)

Leadership, more than any other factor, shapes how federal employees view their workplaces, says Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which encourages careers in public service, found effective leadership trumped type of work, agency mission or the economic climate for the greatest influence on job satisfaction this year in its annual "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" report.

The partnership ranks 371 federal agencies and offices and represents the views of 97 percent of the 2.1 million-person federal workforce. This year, job satisfaction government-wide sank to an all-time low, but the partnership found that strong leaders had a positive impact on several agencies.

Beyond measuring worker satisfaction, the partnership, in conjunction with Deloitte, studied attitudes on pay, teamwork, work-life balance, training and the match between skills and mission, among other categories. All 10 categories showed declines.

NASA topped the large agency list for 2013, while the Department of Homeland Security came in last. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. led the list of midsize agencies, and the Surface Transportation Board ranked first among small agencies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative came in last in their respective categories.

Agencies with the biggest drops in job satisfaction were the Environmental Protection Agency, HUD, the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. NASA, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S International Trade Commission showed the most improvement.

The partnership bases its rankings on results from the Office of Personnel Management's annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and data from eight additional agencies and the intelligence community. Stier, who says the rankings should alert leaders to trouble and serve as a road map to improve performance, spoke to The Baltimore Sun about the findings.

With just 57.8 percent of federal workers satisfied with their jobs, the government-wide score is at its lowest level since the rankings first came out in 2003. The score has been dropping for three straight years. Was this worse than expected?

Unfortunately, it was predictable. And obviously the environment that the federal government is operating in has been salacious, the drubbing the workforce has been taking in public, and certainly with budget negotiations, the sequester, three years of a pay freeze and the list goes on. The toll that it's taken on our government is severe. We could have anticipated that number, but knowing that it was coming didn't make it any better.

The other shoe that hasn't dropped is the government shutdown. The data was collected during the first half of the year, pre-shutdown. We can assume only worse has been done to the workforce.

What do you find differentiates the great federal workplaces from the lowest-ranking agencies?

Agencies are ranked by 10 workplace environment categories, and the No. 1 driver in employee engagement is their perception of their leadership. Almost two-thirds of employee satisfaction and commitment is driven by the quality of the leaders in the organization. It's fascinating when you see that play out.

At NASA, they are not only dealing with all the changes I described but specifically faced significant changes to its mission, significant budget cuts, significant drops in the number of employees in the organization, and yet, it didn't just stay No. 1, it got even better.

It's all about the quality of the leadership. [NASA Administrator Charles F.] Bolden approaches the job with the recognition that they are there to empower and enable their workforce and get the workforce the information they need to do their jobs. They have clarity around their objectives and how activities align.

Leaders support innovation and risk-taking and do all the things that create a successful, high-performing organization. Despite the fact that we saw a drop [in the overall ranking], a quarter of the agencies went up [in satisfaction score]. It shows extraordinary leadership can overcome even these ferocious head winds.

Was it surprising to you that a quarter of the agencies were able to improve their scores?

It was not a surprise because we saw that story before. [In 2012] one-third went up. We know, and have multiple years of data to demonstrate, that despite a difficult climate, strong leadership or truly capable leadership can make an organization stronger.

You look at NASA, which starts at the top. For them to get better, that's surprising. … So I think the rankings truly do put a spotlight on leadership and management in government that generates real attention by top leadership. It's terrific in that way. It's a metric that's data-driven to help leaders understand how they're doing.

It's hard to measure performance in the public sector, where you're trying to achieve a public good and not a financial end. Metrics are an incredibly useful point of focus for agency leadership. The fact that media pays attention, they also pay attention and it enables the workers' voice to be heard — not anecdotally, but en masse.

You recently testified before a congressional hearing on employee morale at the Department of Homeland Security, which had the lowest satisfaction score — 46.8 percent — of any large government agency, defined as 15,000 or more employees. Can you talk about that?

Because they had these numbers, there's no question that the rankings have provoked real attention.

The hearing was called to talk about lack of confirmed leadership, 40 percent of the positions were vacant, and the impact on employee morale. The basic point of my testimony was that leadership matters and firm leadership matters. They need to fill jobs and create an environment that can engage [employees.]

They have the lowest ranking, but it is going further down. The most important issue is the leadership number … and getting the information you need to do your job well. Eighty percent of employees say promotions are not based on merit. They need to create a cohesive plan to focus on better engaging employees.

For agencies that do well and don't do well, it's not about the mission and its not about the type of job. It's not about whether it's in D.C. or not in D.C. … Leadership is much more important.

What are some success stories in the federal workplace, either in agencies or subcomponents of agencies?

The U.S. Mint saw a huge jump. … It's about engaged and committed employees. The Patent and Trademark Office went from 172 to No. 1 in the last five years [in a ranking of agency subcomponents] but dropped the patent backlog while patent [submissions] were going up.

Dealing with knowledge-based organizations, being able to engage [employees] more means better stuff happens. That is your key ingredient to organic success. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. went from near the bottom to the top, but had a leader who put together a five-year plan. It was not an overnight turnaround.

HUD had some of the biggest drops. Some of that was undoubtedly related to the survey taking place at the same time HUD employees were being furloughed.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com