I love my job

FCW's survey of best agencies for information technology employees shows that many feds maintain a sense of idealism, even when faced with perennial workplace challenges

There’s still a lot of idealism about doing government work. That’s one theme that runs through the responses to Federal Computer Week’s third annual survey of best agencies for information technology employees.

“I think you develop a sense of the mission that you’re here to support, especially working at [the Defense Department] where you are supporting soldiers who are defending the country,” said Jim Bollinger, project manager at the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Bollinger’s comments were similar to those of other federal employees who responded to questions about where they work and how well they like their jobs.

“The sense of idealism is very important,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. “Public service is an asset that the government holds in that people are in government not because they’re maximizing their wealth potential but because they value the capacity to make a difference.”

At NASA, Rex Elliott, business support manager in the Office of Human Capital Management at the Goddard Space Flight Center, is proud of the important work his agency does. “We have an exciting mission,” he said. “We do things that have never been done before.”

That idealism and sense of pride in the work they do translates into a relatively high job-satisfaction rate among federal employees. In the survey, 64 percent of those who responded said they were satisfied with their jobs to a greater or lesser degree. Thirty-six percent reported that they were dissatisfied in their jobs, up slightly from the survey results in 2006, when 32 percent said they were dissatisfied. Employees in executive positions tended to be happier than those in less senior positions.

chart Leading this year’s best agency rankings in terms of job satisfaction were the Social Security Administration; the Army; and the Justice, Treasury and Commerce departments. Rounding out the top 10 were DOD agencies, the Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs departments, the Air Force and the Interior Department.

The lowest ranking agencies were the General Services Administration, the Agriculture Department, the Homeland Security Department/Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Department/Federal Aviation Administration and the Navy.

The survey, in its third year, should be considered a guide to the factors that make an agency best or worst rather than a score card for any particular agency.

The results are based on 633 responses from employees at 33 federal departments and agencies in 42 states and the District of Columbia. More than half the respondents worked in the Washington metropolitan area, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia.

chart In addition to having a sense of idealism, employees take satisfaction in specific accomplishments at their agencies.

Elliott said, for example, that as part of an agencywide initiative, NASA is creating an innovative Human Capital Information Environment. From what he has seen of the menu of new applications, which he called portlets, the software will greatly simplify human resources functions at NASA.

“Usually new systems make my life more complicated,” he said. “But when I get one that makes it simpler, I stand up and cheer.”

In Alaska, an employee at the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service said he takes great satisfaction in having created what he considers to be a world-class digital image library in Alaska. “If you don’t mind me shamelessly promoting it, take a look,” said Chuck Young, referring to the
images.fws.gov Web site.

As a federal records officer, Web manager and digital library system manager, Young wears many hats. But he said he especially enjoys working with colleagues nationwide to promote a new federal records schedule and file plan.

What would make the Fish and Wildlife Service a better place to work? “More recognition for the nonbiologists in the service,” Young said.

Although many survey respondents expressed a similar high level of satisfaction with their jobs, they also cited areas in which they see room for improvement. One was narrowing the gap between managers and employees.
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An employee at a DOD agency outpost finds himself still dangling without a job description after his agency was restructured about three years ago. “I ended up in a new position,” he said. “In my prior position, I knew what was expected of me.

But now, I don’t know what my performance objectives are. I’m supposed to get rated on them and discuss them with my supervisor. My boss is in Washington, and I’m 100 miles away.”

He doesn’t hold his supervisor responsible for the problem. “I blame the management chain,” he said. “There’s a big disconnect between those guys up there and those of us down here in the trenches. There’s no communication. We’re on the periphery. The action is in Washington.”

An operations-support manager for the U.S. Postal Service in California expressed frustration about his work situation. “It’s difficult to feel a sense of accomplishment because in a bureaucracy everything is set,” he said. “You do things this way, and that’s it. Procedures outweigh actual results.”

The bureaucracy has a way of perpetuating itself, he said. “We have way too many insiders, and when an insider gets to the top, it’s true that [he or she] has the knowledge of the organization, but typically that knowledge is about being in a bureaucracy.”

Some employees expressed concern about favoritism in the workplace, which has an adverse impact on employee morale.

“Sometimes I have seen managers support one or two people,” said an IT worker at a civilian agency in Washington who has completed 20 years of government service. “They like them, and they move them up.”

The issue of favoritism relates to one of the principal management factors that mattered most to employees in the survey: fair performance evaluations. As the government moves to implement performance-based pay systems and eliminate the General Schedule pay scale, performance evaluations could become the primary basis for pay raises.

Kathryn Newcomer, director of the School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University, said it’s not surprising that fair performance evaluations matter to government employees.

“In general, [performance evaluations] are hard to do well,” Newcomer said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s any worse in the public sector than it is in the private sector. It’s horrible everywhere. We don’t do a very good job of it across the board.”

As for pay for performance, many respondents were circumspect about introducing such a pay system governmentwide.

“It’s got its pluses and minuses,” said an IT worker at a small agency in Washington. “It depends on supervisors and managers. They have to be impartial.”

The General Schedule offers employees some protections against unfairness, but it also has a negative side, the employee said. “Those who are not doing any work are also getting the same money as those who are working hard and producing for the agency.”

Among the top technology factors related to job satisfaction, survey respondents rated IT support and the ability to upgrade technology skills.

In the area of professional/environmental factors, they gave high ratings to good teamwork, safety and security. A reasonable commute was also high on the list of desirable factors. Fifty-four percent of the respondents work in the traffic-choked Washington metropolitan area.

Public policy experts often cite telework as a solution to commuting headaches for government workers, but some employees said managers at their agencies show little support for telework.

When it comes to attracting talent, some agencies have an easier time than others. Respondents who said they would like move to another agency if they had the opportunity identified DOD agencies, intelligence agencies and specialized agencies such as NASA, the Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as desirable destinations.

The top three reasons they would want to move to a different agency are importance of mission, the potential for advancement and the agency’s reputation for good management.

Overall, government IT employees want the world to know that they are performing an important public service, they are doing the best they can, and they work together as a team to solve tough technical problems, according to the survey findings.

One agency worker said, “People say the government is inefficient. Who is the government? We are the government. We are here, and we are working. If we do our job properly and have the support, then government can be more effective and efficient.”

Lunn is research director at the 1105 Government Information Group.

Click here to enlarge chart (.pdf).

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More at FCW.comA manager’s guide to a happier workforce (FCW Webcasts)
  • Based on the results of FCW’s Best Agencies survey, Research Director Maxine Lunn highlights the key factors that determine job satisfaction for federal employees. (15 min.)
  • Dick Morton, executive director of the American Management Association’s Federal Learning Institute, outlines the steps needed to build an environment of trust. (9 min.)
  • Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, describes how federal managers can get the most out of their Gen-Y employees. (10 min.)
  • Lynn Lancaster co-founder of BridgeWorks, talks about why agencies need mentoring programs and how to create them. (9 min.)
Plus: The complete results of the FCW survey.
Find it online at www.fcw.com/specials/workforce07.

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