Best place to work? Check the corner office.

The most important factor in determining employee satisfaction is an agency's top leadership

Conventional wisdom tells us that the most important factor in job satisfaction is an employee’s relationship with his or her immediate supervisor. Based on a survey titled “The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” conventional wisdom is wrong.

Consider the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which topped the list of large agencies for the third year running. NRC earned top marks in all 14 categories studied by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation (ISPPI).

However, the agency positively trounced the field in the area of senior leadership, scoring 72.2, compared to 63.1 for NASA, the nearest competitor.

NRC actually earned its highest marks, 83.1, for teamwork, but that was only two points higher than the rest of the field. With an overall score of 81.8 the agency just nipped the Government Accountability Office by 0.2. Leadership made the difference.

“Every survey since ’02 has yielded that the most important category in every agency across the government is effective leadership,” Robert Tobias, ISPPI's director, told America Today. In the last two years in particular, “it’s the relationship between employees and top-level leaders that has the most significant impact on a score. The data is very clear.”

Other categories include employee skills/mission match, teamwork, training and development, and pay. The survey also slices and dices the data across 10 demographics in the areas of gender, age and race/ethnicity. More than 263,000 workers at 290 federal agencies responded to the survey.

For agencies at the top of list, the survey provides good marketing fodder as they look to compete for top talent. For agencies lower in the ranks, it offers an opportunity for self-reflection.

This year’s survey has given officials at the Office of Management and Budget a lot to think about. The agency dropped from third to 25th among small agencies, thanks in part to a lousy rating — 42.2 — for top leadership.

“The numbers come just weeks after former director Peter R. Orszag departed, after overseeing efforts to accelerate the government's hiring process and cut billions of dollars in wasteful government contracts and federal building costs,” note Ed O'Keefe and Lisa Rein at the Washington Post.

"The political and career leaders here at OMB take the results of this survey very seriously," spokeswoman Meg Reilly told the Post, adding that they plan to collect additional feedback and make the necessary changes.

OMB and other agencies can take heart from the Transportation Department, whose overall score jumped almost 16 percentage points to 60.4, the biggest increase among large agencies. The agency, which ranked dead last in last year’s survey, moved up four notches to No. 26.

Last year, agency officials “made a commitment to begin addressing the issues raised by employees in the 2008 survey,” writes Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at the "Fast Lane" blog.

For some agencies, it was all a matter of rising to the occasion. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., left off last year’s list because of a lack of data, grabbed the No. 3 spot. The agency, which secures bank deposits, “was buoyed by its central role in the recent economic downturn after years of low morale,” O’Keefe and Rein write.

“I think everyone feels overworked — and we are — but people feel a lot of pride in their work,” FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said.

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