Feds will have their say through annual surveys

Even agencies rated among the best places to work are having trouble changing to a salary system that more closely resembles the private sector's structure.

"There's going to be a lot of pain before we make real progress," said David Walker, U.S. comptroller general. Walker is the top official at the Government Accountability Office, which ranked fourth among the best places to work in the federal government in a new survey published this month.

In surveys, federal workers typically give agencies low ratings on how well they pay and promote employees for outstanding work, Walker said. "That's what we're trying to address right now, and it's tough stuff," he added.

But turmoil related to new pay systems did not spoil employees' overall satisfaction with GAO and other top-ranked agencies. The 2005 ranking of the best places to work in the federal government shows that employees are happier in their jobs than they were two years ago, when the Office of Personnel Management conducted a similar survey.

OPM will soon require federal agencies to conduct annual employee surveys. It is also drafting regulations that specify questions about job satisfaction and order agencies to publish the results online.

Details of the draft regulations appear in the Sept. 16 issue of the Federal Register. Agency officials and others have until Oct. 17 to comment on them before OPM issues final regulations.

The notice states that the purpose behind the new survey requirement is to assess leadership and management practices that contribute to agency performance. In addition, the surveys will measure employee satisfaction with leadership policies and practices, their work environments, rewards and recognition for professional accomplishment, and opportunities for professional development.

Statutory authority for the new requirements appear in the 2004 Defense Authorization Act. It requires agencies to publish survey results on their Web sites, "unless the head of the agency determines that doing so would jeopardize or negatively impact national security," the OPM notice states.

The draft regulations also state that OPM will analyze the survey data using new database systems designed to assess how well agency leaders and supervisors manage employees.

OPM plans to issue final survey regulations in early 2006.

In the 2005 agency ranking, the top five are the Office of Management and Budget, the National Science Foundation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, GAO, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In addition to its No. 1 rank, OMB is also the most improved agency; it ranked No. 3 in the 2003 employee survey. The office's deputy director for management, Clay Johnson, said the No. 1 ranking gave him an opportunity to use humor to chide his senior staff members, who are under considerable pressure in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and other crises.

Johnson said he reminded them that they work in the best agency in the federal government, and if they think they have it bad, they should remember that it's worse everyplace else.

After noting that OMB overworks its employees, Johnson said the biggest factor in employee satisfaction is the quality of an employee's immediate supervisor.

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