U.S. government agencies that topped the Partnership for Public Service’s 2020 Best Places to Work rankings had strong telework and communication plans that allowed them to effectively navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rankings, released June 29, show NASA once again at the top, leading the large agency category for the ninth year in a row. The Government Accountability Office led for midsized agencies, the Congressional Budget Office led for small agencies, and the Office of Inspector General for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA OIG) led the agency subcomponents category.

The TVA OIG scored a massive 99.4 for satisfaction with work-life balance and a 97.1 for satisfaction with supervisors.

“TVA OIG’s strong telework program in place prior to the pandemic and our ongoing emphasis on effective communications and professional relationships put us in a position to maintain continuity despite the challenges that arose last year,” TVA OIG auditor Lucas Cotter said at the June 29 Best Places to Work awards event.

“In addition, our office made a conscious effort to remain connected while working virtually. Managers shifted processes to enable strong communication and engagement with individual groups, and as an entire office we challenged ourselves to hold all-hands meetings that brought all facets of the organization together,” said Cotter.

NASA also demonstrated early flexibility for employees leading up to the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just one week prior to COVID-19 being declared a national emergency, NASA held a mass telework day to test it’s remote work infrastructure, anticipating that successfully managing such work would be critical in the coming months. NASA was the first agency to hold such a widespread test day.

NASA received a score of 95.1 on its overall COVID response.

“To a person, they were exceptionally motivated, exceptionally enthusiastic about their work,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at the awards event, describing his recent visits with agency employees from across the country.

Overall federal employee engagement rose significantly during the pandemic, going from a 61.7 in 2019 to a 69 in 2020. This increase was driven in large part by the high satisfaction federal employees had with their agencies’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which scored an overall 86.1 out of 100.

Despite its gains, the federal government still falls well behind engagement in the private sector, which scored 77 out of 100 in 2020.

“The 2020 data makes clear that the federal government still has a lot of work to do to improve its competitiveness with the private sector as an employer of choice. The government must strive to meet or exceed the private sector when it comes to employee engagement,” said Partnership for Public Service CEO Max Stier in a news release.

“This experience provides a unique opportunity for President Joe Biden and his administration to build on the lessons of the past year by placing a heightened focus on engaging employees and by addressing their workplace concerns, critical factors necessary for a well-functioning government. The response to the pandemic also provides a pathway for the future of federal work that could involve greater reliance on telework, enhanced use of technology for internal operations and for the improved delivery of services to the public,” said Stier.

And though many agencies’ scores improved from 2019 to 2020, the Office of Management and Budget fell from sixth place to last place among small agencies, dropping nearly 22 points in employee satisfaction.

Most tellingly, the agency responsible for setting and organizing presidential policy scored a 29.7 in the effectiveness of its senior leadership and a 58.2 in how supportive such leaders were during the pandemic.

And only 40.3 percent of employees at OMB responded that they agreed or strongly agreed that they could disclose a suspected violation of the law without fear of reprisal or retaliation.

“We remain laser-focused on building back the agency stronger than ever — drawing on the talents, expertise and strengths of our remarkable career colleagues,” Acting OMB Director Shalanda Young told the Partnership, adding that the agency is in the process of “reinvigorating our important diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility work by partnering with our Employee Resource Groups; fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment; and providing opportunities for our staff to come together in safe spaces to share their experiences.”

The Best Places to Work results are based on responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which is administered by the Office of Personnel Management each year to gauge employee satisfaction with their workplaces.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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