The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is in search of what makes federal employees happier in some agencies and miserable in others.

In an April 28 hearing, the committee brought together representatives from agencies who have ranked high in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government and one, the Department of Homeland Security, which has struggled of late.

The rankings, composed annually by The Partnership for Public Service, track employee satisfaction and engagement from Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results and have shown employees at NASA, the Department of Labor and Department of Housing and Urban Development have made gains in each category.

With congressional leaders on the hunt for what makes a happy federal workforce, here are four takeaways:

  • Communication is king

NASA has remained the front-runner for large federal agencies when it comes to employee satisfaction. The agency's Chief Human Capital Officer, Lauren Leo, said that shared mission goals that are communicated from the top down have helped keep employees engaged.

"NASA senior leaders visit their employees in their labs and other worksites to hear from them directly about their work and their work life," she said. "Because our employees feel connected to the mission and to each other, we have a very positive work culture with a high level of employee engagement."

The DOL, which jumped 4.4 percent in the 2015 rankings to tie with the Department of Transportation, achieved higher employee engagement through a litany of strategies, but all of them were fostered by analyzing response data and reaching out to employees.

"We gathered data and looked for things we could do right away, based on employee feedback," said DOL Chief Human Capital Officer Sydney Rose. "Employees told us, 'We think you could do a better job training supervisors and managers.' So we built a curriculum specifically to address that. We did simple things. People said, 'Can we have a microwave in the cafeteria?' We did small things, we did large things, we did long-term things and we kept telling people what we were doing."

  • Building better leaders

Max Stier, president of The Partnership for Public Service, said that one way agencies is to increase employee engagement and satisfaction is to start with better leadership training.

"What the data says across the board is that you have got a highly committed workforce that whatever they are doing, whether they are working at GSA or HUD, where you have great leadership you have engaged employees."

Stier suggested that the federal government take a number of steps to ensure that agency leaders approaching engagement in the right ways, including: Making political leaders more accountable for engagement, improving the culture of recognition among employees, giving managers the choice of whether to promote probationary employees to permanent status and developing best practices for engagement policies.

Stier also added that Congress should codify FEVS as an annual survey, and speed up its completion, to make sure engagement data can be utilized consistently.

  • Creating a Culture of Recognition

Another point that helps build employee engagement, Stier said, is when the agency recognizes its employees' successes.

"You need definitely to recognize good performers if you want to encourage that to be the norm," he said. "We don't have a culture of performance recognition in government and that's one of the reasons why federal employees are risk adverse."

He also noted that DHS, with its multitudes of agencies and employees, has varied mission goals that make it tough to apply a single engagement strategy to, but could be better served by a culture of recognition.

"There are bright spots at DHS that ought to be recognized," he said.

  • Better engagement equals better customer service

One of the correlations that data has shown, Stier said, was that when employee engagement was low, so was its customer service with taxpayers.

"The VA actually has some good data that shows in those hospitals that have higher employee engagement rates, you have higher customer service," he said.

But equally important to realize is that despite the draw of the mission to public service, it's the leadership that trumps when it comes to engagement, not just in the U.S., but also abroad.

"What's also interesting is subsequent to our starting the Best Places to Work rankings, in the governments of Great Britain, Australia and Canada, you are now seeing this as a global phenomenon where other countries are recognizing a good way to hold leadership accountable is to listen to the employees and focus on employee engagement."

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