2005: Best places, big stresses and more change

A few agencies shine in workplace surveys; new HR systems had a rough takeoff

Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2005

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Employee surveys and management score cards gave agency executives fresh insight into how far they advanced the President's Management Agenda in 2005. But even when score card fatigue set in, no executive leaders expected to escape public scrutiny of their agencies' performance. The year was notable for the number of congressional hearings on federal management issues and expanded efforts to use information technology to manage employees' training and performance appraisals.

Survey I: OMB tops the list

The latest ranking of the best places to work in the federal government showed that employees are happier in their jobs than they were two years ago when the Office of Personnel Management conducted a similar survey of federal workers.

The Office of Management and Budget topped the list in 2005. Besides OMB, the other federal agencies that ranked in the top five were the National Science Foundation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Government Accountability Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In addition to its No. 1 spot, OMB was also named the most improved agency; it ranked as the third-best workplace in a 2003 employee survey. The office's deputy director for management, Clay Johnson, joked that if his senior managers complain about stress and too much work, he can remind them that they work for the best agency in the federal government.

The Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service created the ranking with data that OPM collected in 2004 from 150,000 federal employees.

Survey II: Kudos to NASA, Commerce

NASA and the Commerce and Transportation departments are the best agencies for federal IT workers, according to a 2005 survey of Federal Computer Week subscribers.

However, some of the 602 federal workers who responded to the survey complained that they were tired of reorganizations and reshuffling. Federal IT workers said they don't like the constant threat of budget cuts and outsourcing. Others cited bad management and antiquated IT equipment, among other reasons, for their dissatisfaction.

"The biggest factor in making any job or place of employment good is the leadership and management style used by the supervisors and immediate managers," said Ray Rathburn, an IT specialist at the Social Security Administration in Seattle, who added that he is happy in his job.

Labor makes green sweep on score card

Third-quarter executive score cards showed agencies earning management scores that drew praise from OMB executives.

Johnson identified the Labor Department as the first to achieve an all-green score card for management. "Now Labor is challenged to show other agencies how having all the desired management disciplines in place can affect their performance," Johnson said.

When OMB began keeping management scores in 2002, 85 percent of agencies' status scores were red, or unsatisfactory. Now 75 percent of the scores are green or yellow, meaning successful or satisfactory.

Agencies' scores are based on how well they handle five difficult management challenges: workforce, competitive sourcing, financial performance, e-government, and budget and performance integration.

Voinovich hot on security clearances

A backlog of more than 185,000 security clearance investigations in 2005 forced prospective employees of the FBI, CIA and other agencies to wait for months while their cases were processed. Officials expressed concern that the backlog was not shrinking, despite a law enacted in 2004 to speed investigations.

The seemingly intractable workload led Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) to question whether the new law set unreasonable deadlines for fixing a problem he described as a major national security and workforce challenge.

Voinovich, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, said he was also concerned about a sharp increase in the number of security clearance applications since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Voinovich alluded to the attacks by noting that enormous sums of money are being spent on clearances for jobs that previously required none. "Osama bin Laden has been responsible for enormous change in the United States of America," he said.

Unions challenge new pay systems

The Defense Department unveiled controversial new personnel rules that will affect 700,000 civilian employees by November 2009 if everything goes according to schedule. But DOD faces obstacles that could delay the implementation.

New workforce regulations that followed the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act changed the status quo but not as thoroughly as the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) regulations could transform the civil service, said John Palguta, vice president of policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that promotes government service.

Union officials said an overhaul of federal pay and labor relations laws was unnecessary when smaller changes could have made the existing laws more flexible. Ten federal employee unions detailed their objections to NSPS by filing a lawsuit Nov. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In August, a federal judge voided portions of new labor rules at the Homeland Security Department that closely resemble DOD's rules, arguing that they violate collective bargaining rights and other employee protections. DHS officials appealed the decision.

Bush administration officials have not yet found legislative sponsors for their proposed governmentwide workforce changes, which are similar to those at DHS and DOD.

Voinovich questioned how much the governmentwide changes might cost. "Does the administration understand the financial commitment that must be made to move forward with this human capital agenda?" Voinovich asked Dan Blair, OPM's deputy director.

Patent examiners battle job stress

A panel of experts made dozens of recommendations for fixing management and workforce problems at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an agency struggling to cope with a backlog of patent applications.

Changing interpretations of patent law and inventors' growing interest in claiming intellectual property exacerbated USPTO's labor and management problems and flooded the agency with new patent applications in 2005. Those were the conclusions of a 298-page report from management experts at the National Academy of Public Administration.

Making e-training a required course

OPM awarded 63 e-training contracts in July that, if widely used, could make federal agencies leading buyers in an emerging market for employee performance management systems, said Scott Byrnes, communications director at Plateau Systems, an e-learning company that won two of the contracts.

Using IT to track federal employee training and its effect on productivity has been a major objective of the Bush administration's e-Training initiative, federal and industry officials say.

The initiative's online home is USALearning, a Web portal to which OPM plans to add an analytics server. OPM will use the server to aggregate and report agency-level and governmentwide data on employee skills, training and job performance improvement.

The e-Training initiative reflects President Bush's interest in making federal agencies and their employees more productive and accountable, Byrnes said. Having the analytical tools is a big part of it, he added.

Industry experts say the initiative's effectiveness will depend on how well OPM promotes the e-training capabilities available through USALearning.

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