Every year for at least the past three years federal employees reported in an annual survey their increasing job and workplace satisfaction. But this year, things are different.

The findings from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted earlier this year revealed a shift in federal workforce confidence. Now, with the Dec. 12 release of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, that shift is underscored by a significant decline in employee engagement and overall satisfaction across federal agencies.

According to the 2018 rankings, employee engagement declined at nearly 60 percent of federal organizations surveyed, while only about 40 percent reported increases and just over 1 percent stayed the same. The figures demonstrate a “stark contrast to the previous three years,” when more than 70 percent of federal agencies reported improvements in employee satisfaction in their job and workplace, according to a press release accompanying the results.

The annual rankings were released by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and global management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, and are the first to encompass an entire year under the Trump administration.

The rankings highlighted a plunge in employee satisfaction in the three strongest drivers of employee engagement: effective leadership, the match between employee skills and agency missions, and pay.

This year fewer than half of federal agencies and their subcomponents registered increases in these three areas. Conversely, in 2017, 2016 and 2015, more than 70 percent of the agencies and subcomponents reported improvements on these issues.

“This year’s rankings tell the tale of two governments,” Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said in the release. “One part of our government has agencies with committed leaders who are fostering high and improving levels of employee engagement. The other part of our government is handicapped by a lack of leadership that has led to static or declining employee engagement.”

About that ‘engagement’

Last year the Harvard Business Review called high employee engagement “the holy grail of today’s workplace,” though the report’s authors also cautioned that engagement doesn’t equal productivity. They did indicate, however, that engagement is tied to better results as a whole, and it’s widely accepted that employee engagement is a critical factor and measurement of job satisfaction, whether in the public sector or private industry.

Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said there’s more to the story than the top-workplace rankings and the statistics that seem to make evident flagging morale. But in her keynote speech at a Dec. 12 event in Washington unveiling the survey findings, she did recognize the importance of engagement.

“It’s not just about leaders leading and managers managing, but about people participating,” Weichert said. “The workforce is not the problem in government, it is the solution.”

Weichert also made sure to emphasize the agencies that rallied in the rankings this year.

“The biggest and most exciting things in this data is who has improved,” she said.

So who has improved? Weichert specifically praised the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, where scores increased in the annual findings. The Secret Service, honored as the “most improved” agency, boosted its score by 11 points, though it ranked 398th out of 415 agency subcomponents.

NASA won top honors for the seventh year in a row as the best place to work in the federal government and remains the No. 1 large agency to work for, with an employee engagement score of 81.2 out of 100. The Department of Health and Human Services was the large-agency runner-up, enjoying its fourth consecutive improvement in score to 70.9 this year.

In the midsize category, the Federal Trade Commission ranked first with a score of 84.0, up from fourth place last year. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission followed at 83.9.

The best small agency was, for the second year running, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service with a score of 87.2. The U.S. International Trade Commission ranked second-best small agency with an 85.7 score.

The top agency subcomponents were the Office of the General Counsel at FERC and the Office of the Inspector General at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which tied with scores of 95.0.

The agencies that reported a significant dip in employee engagement were the Departments of Agriculture, State and Education; the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; the National Labor Relations Board; the Federal Labor Relations Authority; and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at DHS.