You'd think that waking up every day in places such as Yellowstone, Olympic, Acadia, Yosemite or Rocky Mountain national parks would be part of a dream job. But a survey of federal employees shows that those working for the National Park Service are far from being the most content with their jobs.
In fact, according to the 2009 Best Places to Work survey, the National Park Service ranks surprisingly close to the bottom of all federal agencies in terms of job satisfaction: out of 216 agencies, the Park Service stood 160th. Topping the list were the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Government Accountability Office.
Why? The respondents pointed to poor training and development, ineffective leaders, poor teamwork, a lack of strategic management, and poor quality of life when it comes to a work/life balance. Distressingly, the Park Service’s overall reputation as a good place to work has gotten worse in recent years, according to the survey, the fourth annual.
While the latest overall index score of 59.8 was a tad higher than last year's 58.2 overall score, it was down from 62.5 noted in 2005 and 64.1 recorded in 2003.
In some specific categories, the Park Service garnered a score of just 38.5 out of 200 on the question of effective leaders, 38.3 out of 185 in the "family friendly culture and benefits" category, and 40.1 out of 200 in "performance based rewards and advancement. While the highest score was a 78.3 out of 120 in "employee skills/mission match," that was down from both the 2005 score of 78.8 and the 2003 score of 81.0 in that category.
The Park Service's National Leadership Council, which is comprised of the agency's director, deputy directors, regional directors, associate directors and assistant directors, says it is working to reverse the trends, but that it won't happen overnight.
"A number of initiatives in the learning and development arena were initiated in 2008 in response to the 2007 ranking. We will continue to focus on carrying these through to completion, as well as identify further workplace enrichment initiatives in the coming months," the leadership council said. "Emphasis in areas such as communication, supervisory skills development, and work-life flexibilities will support the NPS goal of becoming a best place to work in the federal government.
"Combined with the prior survey results (we're having the analysis done right now that compares 2002 with 2004 with 2006 and now 2008), we take the trends seriously and the similarity of responses to certain questions seriously," added the council. "Our training and development revitalization efforts over the past year-and-a-half are a direct result of 2006 results and simply haven't had time to pay off yet in terms of morale impact.
"It is important to note that real change in morale takes sustained effort over a number of years to find out what are the biggest concerns among the large number identified and to come up with meaningful ways to redress those concerns that will result in noticeable differences in the way the workforce perceives the issue."
Some of the concerns, however, were pointed out to the agency back in 2006 when Julie Elmore, then a graduate student working on her master's degree at Duke University, did her thesis project on National Park Service Employee Satisfaction and Employee Retention. That project, in which Ms. Elmore received responses from more than 2,500 Park Service employees, pointed to a number of areas of employee discontent. Some of the comments were quite biting:
* "In my park, I've seen a job created to employ the girlfriend of upper management as well as to move her entire family stateside. ... I watched my former superintendent play solitaire on his office computer for hours as well as to print out reams of paper from the Internet on recipes and ads for buying a boat."
* "We continue to put out large fires but fail to prevent the fires or see the cause."
* "Today's reality is that NPS managers at all levels are forced to concentrate all their energies on 'putting out fires' all day, every day. 'Doing more with less' is no longer an option. If preservation and protection of park lands is still important to the American people, then the case must be made to increase budgets and to hire and retain quality personnel."
* "We need to show pride and recognition to those who do a good job. This motivation goes a long way. We need to build pride again in our mission and our agency. People will see the difference and want to be a part of it. We have to build it from within, person to person, not with a national campaign and button."
* "Quit pulling out leaders and filling with cronies. Hire good people and believe in them. Let them do their work without the fear that they could be removed if a stakeholder isn't happy."
* "I have a short time left before I am eligible for retirement, and cannot wait. I believe in the mission of the National Park Service and it is extremely difficult to watch how that mission has been purposely and effectively corrupted and derogated over the past six years. Ideologues have hired ideologies."
How might the Park Service improve its overall ranking? According to the Best Places to Work survey, effective leadership at the top of the agency is the ticket:
For the fourth time in a row, the primary driver of job satisfaction in the federal space is effective leadership. While this finding is no surprise, the reasons behind it are. In a first, the 2009 Best Places rankings break down which factors shape employees’ views of their leadership. Conventional wisdom holds that the greatest influence on an employee’s satisfaction is his or her immediate supervisor. However, the 2009 Best Places rankings reveal that it is actually the quality of an agency’s senior leadership that has the greatest bearing on employee views.