Best and worst
FCW’s second annual best — and worst — IT agency survey shows that although some things change, many stay the same
The Air Force is the best place to be if you’re a fed who likes information technology. The Interior Department, judged by feds to be not so hot, is the least favorite spot. Those are the results of Federal Computer Week’s second annual survey of the best — and worst — IT agencies for job satisfaction.
When FCW tallied the responses, the Air Force, the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department scored highest on employee satisfaction. Interior, the Transportation Department, the State Department and the U.S Agency for International Development were at the bottom of the rankings.
DOT’s position is somewhat surprising because it had the highest ranking in 2005. The turnabout does not necessarily mean that DOT management fumbled this year. The drop could be because of the number of employees who responded or a few responses that skewed the satisfaction level.
But the factors that influence respondents’ satisfaction are clear. Sentiments such as a “good relationship with management,” “flexible work arrangements” and a “strong belief in management’s vision of the agency’s mission” contributed most to employee satisfaction. Those factors remained relatively stable from 2005 to 2006.
The survey also found clear causes of unhappiness. At least six survey respondents complained about cronyism, favoritism or an old-boy network. A few others cited the incompetence of political appointees. Others griped about lack of funding for IT projects. Some complained about having little opportunity for personal development because agencies are outsourcing more IT work.
IT employees should look for those best and worst practices when they consider changing jobs. The survey findings also indicate how managers can better recruit and retain a capable IT workforce.
FCW surveyed 60,000 government IT employees in its subscriber database. Respondents were anonymous unless they indicated that they were willing to be contacted. Some people agreed to talk about their responses but asked not to be identified so they could speak more freely. Participants received a unique personal identification number to use when they filled out the Web-based questionnaire. The response rate was 2 percent, which is typical of Web-based surveys. This year, 1,183 federal employees completed the survey compared with 602 last year.
Aside from the individual agency standings, the 2006 survey results did not change significantly from those in the 2005 survey. Most respondents, regardless of agency, said they are satisfied. Employees who said they find their work challenging and feel they are making a difference are content in their jobs.
IT employees at the Homeland Security Department said they are lucky they can help disaster victims. Stewart Carter, a senior IT contracts liaison specialist at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cited Hurricane Katrina as an example.
“When Hurricane Katrina hit, all the managers I interact with wholeheartedly dove into the response immediately,” Carter said. “We all started putting in 12-hour workdays. Most were willing, anxious, wanting to do this. It was a matter of leadership by example and how a team tries to do the right thing and help people versus the common stereotypes of government workers who just put in work and go home on time.”
Carter said a good management environment and adequate technical resources contribute to his high level of satisfaction. FEMA’s backbone processing system is the National Emergency Management Information System, which handles inquiries from disaster victims. The agency’s mission is to help victims quickly, he said. “NEMIS processes claims in a matter of days versus weeks in the old days.”
Carter’s tenure — more than 25 years as a government employee — is typical of most respondents. Sixty-five percent have at least 20 years’ experience in the federal government. That low turnover rate is another indication that government IT workers are generally satisfied.
But government workforce morale could drop in the next few years if hiring and training trends continue, some survey participants and government observers said. An Army management analyst, whose duties include IT purchasing, said younger hires at his installation are rare. That employee, who asked not to be named, said he is generally satisfied with his workplace. However, he said he is concerned that the average age in his division is about 50.
FCW’s survey found that limited training opportunities is the No. 1 cause of dissatisfaction among IT employees. A new Defense Department IT specialist, who also asked not to be named, said managers told him that special instruction is rarely an option because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consume most funding.
“Training is required and needed, but it’s not available because of the budget,” he said. The IT specialist said his job satisfaction would increase if he had more access to senior-level expertise and education.
Factors that do not greatly affect job satisfaction include the ability to telecommute, pay-for-performance systems and mentoring. Employees want flexible work arrangements, but they do not care a great deal about working from home.
Matthew Duffy, a contract specialist at DHS who has spent 20 years in the government, said he values flexible work arrangements more than telecommuting. He works nine-hour days in return for one day off every two weeks. “It’s not one of those hit-the-time-clock positions,” said Duffy, who works at DHS’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
In addition to flexible work hours, communication affects many aspects of an employee’s job experience. Luis Kagalis, a branch chief for IT assets at the State Department’s Bureau of Information Resource Management, said he credited his overall job satisfaction to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s emphasis on leadership training. His successor, Condoleezza Rice, has upheld that tradition.
Kagalis said mandatory leadership classes teach managers necessary people skills. The focus on proper conduct creates an enjoyable work atmosphere and competent project managers, he said.
Technical education opportunities also influence employee attitudes, Kagalis said. “When new servers or operating systems come in, there are certification classes that are offered,” he said. “When you are knowledgeable and you are well-trained, of course you are going to be happy because you know what’s going on.”
Kagalis said he is one of many federal employees who takes advantage of flexible work arrangements. Because his commute to Springfield, Va., takes about an hour, he chooses to work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. to avoid the heaviest commuter traffic.
A good boss
Survey participants said their primary sources of dissatisfaction at work are poor relationships with managers and supervisors who do not understand IT.
Such responses are useful for employees preparing for job interviews, according to several government workforce experts. John Palguta, vice president of policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, said prospective federal IT employees should ask managers about issues such as flexible work accommodations at the outset.
“I would want to ask specifically about management’s vision” on where the department is going, Palguta added. “Make sure the manager really understands the role of IT.”
Likewise, chief information officers should recognize that IT employees care about flexible work hours. “IT people do not need to be chained to their desks,” he said.
Palguta added that readers should be skeptical of any list of best agencies because such rankings reflect the sentiments of only a small subset of federal employees.
An important message, however, is that management matters, Palguta said. Some circumstances, such as outsourcing and budgetary constraints, are unavoidable, he said. But managers can soften the blow by being honest with employees.
“Don’t make stuff up,” Palguta said. “Don’t sugarcoat messages if there is no sugarcoating that is realistic.”
Palguta said IT leaders should listen to employees’ concerns and let them know that they matter.
The survey found that technology assets are important in federal IT workers’ satisfaction. Employees said they want complex projects to challenge them. They want access to cutting-edge technology and the opportunity to learn new technical skills. Inadequate access to training, few opportunities to manage complex projects and the lack of an innovative environment create negative feelings.
A Navy installation program director said his job satisfaction has diminished substantially while working on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet program, a multibillion dollar program. The Navy has outsourced its shore-based network to EDS. “Because of contracting out, we’ve become more of a glorified babysitter than anything else,” said the employee, who did not want to be identified. “They’re throwing out all the corporate knowledge in the process.” He added that he cannot attract new employees because he has no training opportunities to offer.
Jacqueline Simon, public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, said FCW’s survey respondents’ views mirror those of the U.S. workforce. “The most interesting thing I found in reading this is something we see in highly educated professionals across the government and industry,” Simon said. “People want challenging, cutting-edge work. The new work is often the most challenging work.”
However, Simon added, agencies outsource almost all of the most innovative work. “When that work is contracted out, you’re going to get dissatisfaction,” she said. “We hear that from our scientists at NASA, for example. That’s the cool stuff. That’s what they want to do.”
Job site factors also influence worker satisfaction. Federal IT employees said they want nice offices, comfortable noise levels and easy commutes. Free or subsidized parking makes a difference. Employee diversity, a new question topic on the survey this year, ranks just as high. Among the negative comments, some respondents mentioned extreme office temperatures and unsanitary conditions.
Duffy said he enjoys the landscaping at his Indianapolis, office. He said the location is clean and serene with views of wildflowers and the sounds of chirping frogs.
The Air Force rocks
Agencies that seem to be on the right track value people just as much as technology. Lt. Gen. Michael Peterson, the Air Force’s CIO, said the service’s IT workforce of active-duty, reserve, civilian and contractor employees are a community of professionals who enjoy challenging work. “We give them the opportunity to grow, train and cut their teeth on leading-edge technologies and turn them loose on missions like defeating terrorism, securing the homeland and providing humanitarian relief to people in need.”
The survey asked participants where they would choose to work if they could switch to another job anywhere in the federal government. Their top choices were DOD, DHS, the Air Force and NASA.
Peterson said he thinks the Air Force’s mission may be a reason the service ranked high on job satisfaction and dream job lists. “A key part of job satisfaction is feeling like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself, something important,” he said. “The Air Force also has a mission like no other agency in the federal government.… It gives them a real sense of satisfaction that’s hard to beat anywhere else.”
“One great example of innovation is our capability to operate unmanned aircraft over Iraq and transmit live video to users around the globe from locations here in the U.S.,” Peterson added. IT “has reduced our deployed footprint, increased our flexibility and demonstrated our ability to operate key air assets from halfway around the world.”
FCW’s survey corroborated Peterson’s observation. Respondents who said they would prefer to work somewhere else gave reasons such as a more important mission, the ability to work with the latest technology and better potential for advancement.
Even though many IT workers named DOD as their ideal employer, the grass is not always greener on the military side. Some comments revealed that DOD workers have the same troubles as workers at civilian agencies, such as Dilbertville cubicles, temperature swings and outsourcing. Even the Air Force, one of the best, took a hit for having noisy office cubicles.
Lunn is research director for FCW Media Group, which owns Federal Computer Week.
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