Rankings Offer Congress Insider View of Federal Agencies

As part of its oversight responsibilities, Congress constantly calls senior administration officials to Capitol Hill where they offer well-guarded and carefully crafted answers about conditions at their agencies.

If our legislative leaders really want a clearer picture of what's going on within the executive branch, they would be wise to listen closely to the opinions of the most authoritative voices on the topic - government employees.

The recently released 2009 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings provide this kind of unvarnished insight -- offering an important measure of agency management and leadership, and providing an alert system for signs of trouble and dysfunction.

There is nothing more powerful than what employees have to say about their workplaces. When agencies are badly managed and workers are unhappy, a low level of engagement and poor performance often follow, and the public suffers.

The 2009 rankings, developed from the Office of Personnel Management's 2008 survey of 212,000 federal employees at 278 large and small agencies and agency subcomponents, suggest that some of the country's most challenging issues are being handled by organizations held in low esteem by their own workers. The red flag is waving, and Congress should pay attention.

Take the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency that manages the government's health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor as well as the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

As the Congress confronts the healthcare crisis and Medicare's serious financial difficulties, we will need both smart policies and a CMS that functions at a very high level. Yet there are strong indications that CMS has serious internal problems that should be addressed.

Part of the Department of Health and Human Services, CMS ranked a dismal 202 out of 216 agency subcomponents in the 2009 Best Places survey. Employees gave CMS low marks for leadership, strategic management, training opportunities, teamwork and matching worker skills with the mission, all ominous signals that something is amiss.

Attention also should be directed to the Department of Education. President Obama has ambitious goals for improving the nation's education system, calling it a prerequisite for the country to compete in the global economy.

Unfortunately, the department ranked 27th out of the government's 30 largest organizations, with the Office of Postsecondary Education listed in 216th place - dead last among agency subcomponents. The department's Federal Student Aid program, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education were all straddling the bottom rung - not an encouraging sign.

We know from recent history, whether it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency's inept response to Hurricane Katrina or the newly disclosed financial regulatory failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission, that government performance matters.

Had Congress focused on the results of the 2003 Best Places survey, it would have found that FEMA was last in the employee rankings. That was two years before Katrina, but few noticed.
FEMA this year improved its score from 2007, but still has one of the lowest ratings.

The latest survey put the troubled SEC in 11th place out of 30 large agencies, but its overall score fell nearly eight percent from 2007 when it ranked third. Clearly employees were expressing unhappiness, and recent disclosures about the lax regulation of Wall Street may explain why.

The president came to office this year promising to make government work and to restore the prestige of the civil service. Last month, Office and Management Budget Director Peter Orszag pledged to keep tabs on agencies that performed poorly in the Best Places survey, and said he will be looking for those with low scores to "develop a game plan to improve performance."

These administration's pronouncements are quite encouraging, and Congress should be equally committed to using the data as a way to look below the surface and make sure problems are uncovered before they reach a crisis stage. Congress also should work with the Office of Personnel Management and OMB to make certain the data is collected annually instead of every two years so that timely information is available.

The Best Places rankings do not provide all of the answers behind agency performance, but they do offer guidance on what questions to ask. Most importantly, they provide early warning signals that can enhance congressional scrutiny and head off serious breakdowns before they occur.

Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings can be found at bestplacestowork.org.