USDA earns high ranking as place to work

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack can leave office after eight years with the knowledge that USDA’s reputation as an employer has risen dramatically, according to a report released last week.

In its annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” the Partnership for Public Service declared that USDA ranked as the ninth best employer of 18 large agencies in the federal government, up from 16th of 19 major agencies in 2013. The ranking is the highest USDA has ever had and the first time it is in the top 10. The same report found dramatic differences in employee satisfaction among the subcabinet divisions of USDA and also varied rankings for other federal agencies that deal with agriculture. (See following stories.)

Like private sector employers, Cabinet officials such as Vilsack take pride in establishing a workplace where employees like their jobs and want to stay, but in theory happier workers should also provide better service and more efficient government.

The Partnership, a nonprofit group that works to improve government performance and employment, developed an index score for each department based on weighted formula that looks at responses to three questions in the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. OPM asked employees whether they would recommend that their agency is a good place to work, how satisfied they are with their jobs and how satisfied they are with the organization.

The Partnership gave Vilsack an award for “most improved agency,” and in an analysis of USDA’s standing, the partnership attributed the improvement to the “cultural transformation initiative” he instituted after learning of USDA’s long record of civil rights problems.

In a letter to all USDA employees, Vilsack congratulated the USDA employees for making USDA a model employer. “Participating in this transformation has been one of my most meaningful experiences as secretary, and I am immensely proud that it has become part of the fabric of our department,” Vilsack said. (See link.)

The ranking based on the comments of the employees and the award run counter to the testimony of Lisa Donnelly, vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, who testified before the House Government and Oversight Committee on December 1 that civil rights conditions got worse during the Obama administration and that the cultural transformation initiative was a failure.

Donnelly said Vilsack and White House officials had refused to meet with her. The hearing focused on sexual abuse and discrimination problems in the Forest Service. Vilsack has said that USDA will not tolerate sexual discrimination, but declined to comment directly on the cases that were the core of the hearing.

In the analysis, Assistant Secretary for Administration Gregory Parnham noted that USDA hired a program manager for employee engagement who focuses exclusively on assisting agencies and staff offices with improving the job satisfaction and work life of employees. As part of this effort, USDA established Employee Advisory Councils for employees to interact with and provide direct input to their leaders.

USDA Chief Human Capital Officer Roberta Jeanquart, a onetime aide to Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who is now a civil servant, told the Partnership that “employees let us know that work-life balance is important to them,” which resulted in an effort across the department to improve employee participation rates in telework and flexible work schedules.

Jeanquart also noted that, at the request of employees, USDA also established a mentoring program.

All of USDA’s efforts did not make it No. 1, however. That ranking went to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Part of employee satisfaction appears to be based on how important employees consider their mission to be. It might be difficult for USDA, whose stated mission is “to facilitate the marketing of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals, oilseeds, and related agricultural products, and promote fair and competitive trading practices for the overall benefit of consumers and American agriculture,” to compete in excitement with NASA, whose mission is “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

–The Hagstrom Report