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March 7, 2011

Some Numbers In Our Defense

by brainoids

Since changing careers from science in 2005, I have had the privilege of shadowing a series of NASA executives whose “drive” has been the continual improvement and maturation of NASA’s management and working culture.   Motivated by the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and by the imperative of “rallying to the cause” to support Beyond Earth Orbit exploration, NASA’s field Center management has made culture change a quiet but determined mission. I am lucky enough to have a job which now lies at the nexus of strategic management and culture, and to paraphrase an Associate Administrator I once worked for, “it’s not perfect, but it’s far better than it was five years ago”.   Whether or not that adage holds true in the new space policy environment in Washington, my personal experience is that it certainly holds true at the working level in the field Centers.  Some actual data on this front may be a good palliative for   the shrill caterwauling of the small handful of professional NASA-critics who haunt the blogosphere.

To this end I turn to the Best Places to Work in Federal Government survey.  Some may argue that self-assessment is hardly an acid test, but I subscribe to the view that the troops in the trenches know when things are off the rails, and in the aggregate, their opinions count.  In the 2009 BPT survey (taken in Feb/Mar 2009, “in between” Administrations),  NASA achieved its highest scores (since the survey’s start in 2003) in the categories of:   Strategic Management, Teamwork, Effective Leadership, Performance-Based Rewards, and Training and Development.   This steady improvement would have been commendable in and of itself, but more importantly, NASA field centers stood out as leaders among all Federal agencies and subcomponents, often in the top 5% of all installations. Far from being a “dispirited” workforce as described recently by OSTP Director John Holdren, NASA’s field Centers have been – and continue to be – model workplaces in the Federal government.

The slideshow below steps through a number of the detailed findings of the BPTW survey.   Individual field centers have been assigned gold stars if they are in the top 5% of all Federal facilities (approximately 223), silver stars if they are in the top 10%, and bronze stars if they are in the top 25%.

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Several detail findings are particularly instructive.  The training and development results include questions capturing whether employees are “given real opportunities to improve their skills”, which in the NASA context, I read as reflecting the opportunity to participate in real spaceflight projects, with real hands-on experience.   In this context it is not surprising that the “development Centers” (Marshall, Johnson, Goddard) and the “testing Center” (Stennis) score in the top 5%.   (My own home Center of Marshall scored 2nd out of all Federal agencies).  For an administration greatly concerned about STEM education, NASA’s ability not only to engage, but also to train, STEM workforces should not go un-noticed.

The series of questions related to effective leadership are also critical, as they go directly to culture issues alluded to in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report.   Questions in this series address issues such as:

  • Supervisors’ job performance
  • Employee opportunities to demonstrate leadership skills
  • Support for development and worthwhile feedback about performance
  • Tolerance of arbitrary actions / favoritism
  • “Whistleblower” comfort level
  • Empowerment with respect to work processes
  • Involvement in decisions affecting work
  • Respect for senior leaders
  • Amount of information provided by management
  • Senior leadership honesty, integrity, ability to motivate

In general, the Human Space Flight and development Centers appear to have strong leadership cultures, at least relative to their NASA and Federal agency peers.   (From “street” experience I can vouch that the issues above are by no means perfect within today’s NASA, but by comparison with Federal peers, the HSF and Development Centers are clearly “best in class”).

A more sobering result is in the teamwork question.   While most of the Agency is still “best in class” here, (top 10% or higher), the trend data from 2007 to 2010 are ominous; the scores are down from 2-7% at almost all Centers from their 2007 levels.  It is hard not to ascribe this to the change in NASA direction, and the return of a planning mode in which Centers compete with each other for work, rather than cooperate towards shared goals.  With any luck the debate over the direction of future space policy will stabilize sooner, rather than later, stemming any further losses in this area.

Coming full circle to the caterwauling critics of the blogosphere:  it is conveniently easy to ignore the difficulty of forming and maintaining effective working structures and relationships in any large organization, whether public or private sector, and even more so in one as encumbered by the constraints of bureaucracy as the Federal government.  Achieving even these (self-assessed) measures of organizational excellence is no mean feat – as shown by the 200-odd Federal installations that fall below NASA field Centers in the rankings.   It is also easy to lose track of this during the day to day – certainly many of my days don’t always feel like gold-star models for others to learn from!

So, to my field Center colleagues, take a breath, reach around, pat yourselves on the back for the things we have accomplished, then roll up your sleeves and keep plugging along to make things even better.

Here is a link to the full set of charts in PDF format:   FedWork10_Neutral.

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