What Makes a Great Government Workplace

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The custodian sweeping the floors at NASA knows exactly what he’s doing: “I’m putting a man on the moon.” Whether fact or fable, that’s exactly the kind of place I want to work, where everyone knows and truly believes how he or she is very literally contributing to mission success, where values aren’t a coffee-break joke. That’s the kind of place most everyone wants to work, and it’s part of the reason that NASA has apparently colonized the employee survey ranking stratosphere.


The Partnership for Public Service’s annual Best Places to Work report is interested in one thing as a measure of the overall quality of federal agencies: employee engagement, what the Partnership describes as “the satisfaction and commitment of the workforce and the willingness of employees to put forth discretionary effort to achieve results.” It makes sense to measure that kind of employee experience. Because that kind of experience starts at the top.

If I look forward to coming to work every day, if I’m glad to turn on the computer and log-in the phone and get down to business, if I know and trust my leadership and believe my leadership knows and appreciates me and my work, if colleagues recognize and leverage team strengths rather than mocking individual challenges, if I know that what we’re about is doing good for people, doing good for our society, even doing good for humanity—the NASA mission is “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind”—then, well, I don’t think I could ask for much more in a job. I might even call that kind of job a vocation. (No, not vacation, VO-cation).


Leadership matters. More than anything else. The Partnership measures organizational leadership by “the extent to which employees believe leadership at all levels . . . generates motivation and commitment, encourages integrity and manages people fairly, while also promoting the professional development, creativity and empowerment of employees.”  Leadership makes training happen and promotion inevitable (for those who work for it, and not for those who don’t). Leadership crafts an ambitious, yet achievable, inspiring vision and articulates the mission and defines priorities that will achieve the vision. Leadership ensures every ounce of energy is invested in accomplishing priorities and, thus, the mission. And leadership models behavior for everyone else—not just admirable professional behavior, but admirable human behavior: showing kindness and compassion, for everyone, working “well with employees of different backgrounds.”


Perhaps that’s why when it comes to seeing NASA as a good place to work, a place that provides job satisfaction, a place where people are satisfied with their organization, women put NASA on top. Perhaps that’s why American Indians or Native Americans put NASA on top. Perhaps that’s why Blacks or African-Americans put NASA on top, why Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders put NASA on top. Perhaps that’s why employees with disabilities, Veterans, and senior executives all put NASA on the top.


The very top. I’d argue that the diversity experience is a litmus test of great leadership. Is it surprising that the best place to work in government, according to the people who work there, keeps getting better and better scores in its support for diversity—“the extent to which employees believe that actions and policies of leadership and management promote and respect diversity”—while the worst places to work pretty steadily fall well-below the median in support for diversity? While NASA ranks highest in regards to questions of diversity, it also ranks highest in regards to questions of employee empowerment, employees’ sense of fairness, and employees’ respect for senior leaders and supervisors. The worst places to work fail in regards to diversity, and fail in regards to all those qualities of leadership, as well.


Yes, NASA’s on top, again. And it will be hard, very hard, to knock them off the top. But NASA’s a great example of what to expect from your organization, of what it takes to build a great organization. For professionals looking for the right place to work, the Best Places to Work in Federal Government is a very powerful guide. For leadership across the Federal government, it’s an excellent tool to understand why those doing well are doing so well, and chart a path to greatness for employees and, by extension, the organization.

Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.

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