USDA employees rate their work experience notably higher than they did a year ago, according to an annual survey published by the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group. 

Their “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings for 2022 have USDA 12th among the 17 largest federal agencies. Last year, it was 14th. The department touted its status as "most improved" in a news release.

Although a decline from the department’s high-water mark of No. 7 in 2017, USDA’s “engagement and satisfaction score” of 62 of a possible 100 is near the government-wide average of 63.4, which was the second annual decline in how civil servants see their workplaces. 

Authors of the report cite uncertainty over 2023 pay raises and post-pandemic rules about returning employees to offices as possible reasons for the declining assessments.

Among the largest branches of the federal government, USDA placed lower than the perennial leader National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its peers at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Veterans Affairs, Treasury, Interior and Transportation but ahead of the State, Justice and Homeland Security departments.

Factors leading to USDA’s improved ratings include a positive view of employees’ immediate supervisors (81.9, or No. 7 of 17) and satisfaction with diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility (71.9, or 6th of 17). But the overall score was weighed down by civil servants’ lack of enthusiasm for senior leadership (score of 51.3, or 14th of 17).

Employee attitudes within USDA mission areas varied widely. Lowest scores were at the Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs group (the Foreign Agricultural Service and U.S. Codex Office) at 42.6 of a possible 100, placing No. 429 among the 432 sub-components of larger federal agencies. The Forest Service was No. 406 with a score of 54.1. Highest rated by their own workers were the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service mission area with 71.6 (No. 194 of 432 sub-components) and Rural Development agencies at a 69.7 score (219th of 432).

Curiously, the report does not show results for the farm program mission area (which encompasses the Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency as well as NRCS, which it rates separately at a near-median 62.9 score). Marketing and Regulatory Programs agencies earned a 66.7 score and the Food Safety and Inspection Service 69.1. The Office of the Secretary posted a 67.2 score while Departmental Administration got a 70.6. 

The Research, Education and Economics mission area (Economic Research Service, Agricultural Research Service, National Institute for Food and Agriculture and National Agricultural Statistics Service) scored 69.6 of 100. The report does not break out individual scores for the component agencies within the mission area, making it impossible to know how employees of ERS and NIFA have rated their agencies since they relocated from Washington to Kansas City.

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Assessments of leadership in the foreign agriculture area were markedly different for mid-level, immediate supervisors and leaders at the top. Workers liked their immediate bosses much more (78.7, or 360 of 432) than senior officials (32.9, or 427 of 432 sub-agencies.) 

Independent agencies with agricultural interests stood out in some rankings. The Farm Credit Administration, often a standout among smaller agencies, ranked 6th among the 30 smallest stand-alone bodies with a score of 80.2. FCA employees ranked top leadership second in its size category and rated their immediate supervisors highest with a score of 92.4 of 100. Two years earlier, FCA had the highest score among all federal agencies for managing during the pandemic. 

Notwithstanding external criticism from industry and consumers for the performance of its food responsibilities, employees rated the Food and Drug Administration highly – No. 92 among the 432 sub-components in the report with a score of 77.7. Its workers liked its attention to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility – a 79.4 score ranks 31st among 356 comparable units.

The U.S. International Trade Commission was 7th with a 76.6 score. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission scored 64.8 to rank No. 23 of the 30 smallest units.

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This story has been corrected from its original version to reflect past results of the survey.