Employee satisfaction: a crucial, often elusive, and certainly nuanced element that determines how much we enjoy our work. It’s also measurable.  In its annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte analyze which agencies are either leading in Employee Engagement or are making great strides toward improving.  It also reveals how United States government agencies compare to the private sector in the area of employee satisfaction. Here are the highlights.

measuring employee happiness

The Best Places to Work rankings are based on the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which in 2017 polled about 485,000 employees across 410 agencies. Mercer/Sirota conducted a similar effort, polling 4.7 million employees in 120 organizations, with 28 questions that are comparative to the FEVS. These intersecting questions include how well leaders inform, empower, recognize, and provide training to employees. They also reveal how much employees trust their leadership, how confident employees feel about their contributions to the mission, and whether they believe their opinions are heard.

Where private sector employees are happiest

The results indicate private sector employees are more satisfied. Overall, the private sector scored 77.8 out of 100 in employee engagement, more than 16 points higher than the federal government score of 61.5.  In 26 of 28 questions, private sector employees had more favorable feedback than federal employees, and usually not by small margins. The private sector scored highest in areas related to employees’ understanding their role in accomplishing their mission, knowing what is expected of them, and being treated respectfully – with scores ranging from 88 to 86 points. But the federal government wasn’t far behind in these areas, scoring between 83 and 79 in these same categories.  The private sector really begins to outpace the USG with their high scores in employee’s trust and faith in their leaders (82 versus 66.9), and how effective employees believe their leaders are (83 versus 69.4).

Big Gaps between the public and private sector

Ten of the 28 questions showed a significant gap of 15 or more points. The private sector far outperforms the federal government in the areas of employee resourcing (a 23.9 point gap), perceptions that awards reflect actual performance (a 23.3 point gap), and the utilization of employee talents (a 19.7 point gap).  The private sector also beat the federal government in the areas of fair recognition for high performance or quality results, and whether employee innovation and input is encouraged by 18 points in each category. Perhaps ironically, the largest gap was related to the employee voice: 68 percent of private sector employees believed that the survey results would be used to improve their organizations, versus 37.9 percent of USG employees – a 30.9 point difference.

Where the federal government Wins

Despite their employees feeling less informed, resourced, or empowered, and not as fairly recognized for their performance, the federal government scored higher in than the private sector in two areas: fair compensation and extra effort. Granted, only 57.4 percent of USG employees feel fairly compensated, but that’s 2.4 percent higher than the private sector’s 54.  This could be due to more transparency in government salaries, where private sector salaries for individuals doing the same work can vary, with colleagues none the wiser.

An impressive score – in fact the highest of any question – was the 95.2 percent of government employees who are willing to go the extra distance to get a job done. While private sector’s 83 percent in this area is still pretty respectable, the 12.2 difference is notable.

making happier employees

Leaders in government agencies have some work to do.  But they’re making solid and consistent progress, with overall employee engagement across government organizations improving 2.1 points in the past year. And despite lagging behind the private sector in most areas, government employees are willing to make the extra effort when needed, which indicates their motivation and commitment isn’t easily swayed by poor work environments or bad leaders.

For additional perspective, while the private sector survey reflects answers from nine times more employee than the federal government, they came from only 120 companies, versus the 410 federal government’s agencies surveyed.  These 120 companies represent various industries globally, so are not necessarily targeted in the U.S., or even the National Security sector. As always, job seekers should consider what aspects of work are deal breakers for them personally, and what improvements specific agencies are making in the categories that matter to them. And ultimately, a conversation with an agency employee or hiring official can reveal much more about whether a specific team in a given agency is true to the Best Places to Work report, or a promising exception.

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Melissa Jordan is an Executive Writer at a US Government agency. With more than 20 years in professional communication and over 16 years of experience working in cross-cultural environments, her most valuable lessons have been learned by trial and error.