Federal Aviation Administration:

Human Capital System Incorporates Many Leading Practices, but Improving Employees' Satisfaction with Their Workplace Remains a Challenge

GAO-10-89: Published: Oct 28, 2009. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 2009.

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Aviation is critical to the nation's economic well-being, global competitiveness, and national security. The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) 48,000 employees guide aircraft, oversee safety, and maintain air traffic control equipment. FAA will need these skills and additional expertise to address evolving missions. As requested, GAO reviewed (1) how FAA's human capital system compares with practices of leading organizations and (2) how FAA employees' workplace satisfaction compares with that of other federal government employees. GAO reviewed documents and relevant studies, and interviewed FAA officials who implement human capital procedures and union representatives. GAO also reviewed survey data on workplace satisfaction.

FAA's human capital system incorporates many practices used in leading organizations, but the agency's placement near the bottom in best places to work rankings, published by the Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation, could pose challenges to employee recruitment, motivation, and retention. As part of strategic workforce planning, FAA determines the critical skills needed in its workforce and assesses individual worker skill levels. It also follows leading practices in performance management, but FAA officials and union representatives questioned the system's fairness, echoing concerns that they have raised in the past. FAA follows fewer leading practices in diversity management, but has an opportunity to strengthen its efforts as it updates diversity outreach plans. Despite these efforts, FAA ranked 214th out of 216 agencies in 2009 as the best place to work in the federal government, similar to its ranking in 2007. These low rankings could pose obstacles to FAA's efforts to retain its existing workforce and recruit staff with the requisite skills needed to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System. By fiscal year 2013, FAA projects that 38 percent of its employees who perform work that is critical to FAA's mission will be eligible to retire. While FAA employee responses to governmentwide surveys indicate that they like their work, their responses are considerably less positive than the rest of the federal government regarding other factors that have an impact on employee recruitment, motivation, and retention. The percentage of FAA employees' positive responses regarding communications, involvement in decisions that affect their work, and respect for their leaders were up to 19 points below those of the rest of the federal government. FAA has developed an action plan to improve leadership and create a performance-based culture that could improve employees' workplace satisfaction. However, FAA has not established accountability for the plan's success.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Aviation is critical to the nation's economic well-being, global competitiveness, and national security. The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) 48,000 employees guide aircraft, oversee safety, and maintain air traffic control equipment. FAA will need these skills and additional expertise to address evolving missions. In 2009, GAO reported that FAA's human capital system employs many leading practices in strategic workforce planning, training, recruitment and hiring, and performance management. However, in response to a congressional concern about diversity in FAA's controller and aviation safety workforces, the agency prepared plans and annual updates aimed at increasing diversity in these workforces. FAA's recruiting efforts, as described in these plans and other FAA documents focus on attracting supply of qualified, diverse applicants for employment and FAA has implemented efforts that could serve to expand its applicant pool. FAA's actions were important steps toward creating a more diverse workforce, but they fall short of the full range of leading diversity management practices that GAO has observed in high performing organizations. GAO identified leading diversity management practices that could be instructive to FAA as it develops annual updates to its plans to increase diversity in its controller and aviation safety workforces. Therefore, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to ensure that key leading practices in diversity management are incorporated in future updates of FAA's plans to increase diversity in the controller and aviation safety workforces. In 2014, GAO confirmed that FAA implemented a number of efforts related to leading practices identified by GAO. For example, a leading diversity management practice is to ensure that top leadership provides a vision of diversity that it demonstrates and communicates throughout an organization. The FAA administrator communicated his diversity vision via a memo, dated January 15, 2013, to all FAA employees affirming his commitment to a diverse and inclusive workplace following this leading practice. A second, leading practice is to establish a recruitment program that attracts a supply of diverse qualified applicants for employment. The FAA's Office of Civil Rights established the National Outreach Program for Diversity and Inclusion which is a recruitment program to ensure that all members of society have equal access to FAA's programs and projects that may lead to future employment and advancement opportunities through outreach, consultation, collaboration and education. A third, leading practice is to develop a diversity strategy and plan that are aligned with the organization's strategic plan. The FY2014 Air Traffic Organization Business (ATO) plan, which supports FAA's four strategic priorities, established a goal to enhance ATO leadership development, career progression, succession planning, performance management and diversity initiatives across the organization. Under FAA's strategic priority to empower and innovate with its people, ATO plans to build and retain a diverse highly skilled, motivated and productive workforce. By incorporating key leading practices for diversity management into its plans, FAA has taken the next steps to increase diversity in the controller and aviation safety workforces.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA can hire, motivate, and retain the talented staff it needs to operate the national airspace system and implement the transition to NextGen, Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to ensure that key leading practices in diversity management are incorporated in future updates of FAA's plans to increase diversity in the controller and aviation safety workforces.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Aviation is critical to the nation's economic well-being, global competitiveness, and national security. The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) 48,000 employees guide aircraft, oversee safety, and maintain air traffic control equipment. FAA will need these skills and additional expertise to address evolving missions. In 2009, GAO reported that FAA employee responses to OPM's 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey placed the agency well behind the rest of the federal government in overall satisfaction with their leaders and their leaders' competencies in communications and building teamwork and cooperation. FAA is taking steps that could improve employee satisfaction with their leaders over time. FAA's actions aligned with governmentwide initiatives to improve workplace satisfaction. FAA has developed a Federal Human Capital Survey 2009-2010 Action Plan, which focuses on improving FAA's positive response rates to selected survey items related to leadership and creating a performance culture. However, FAA had not established accountability for the plan's success. Although the action plan sets a goal of a 7 percent improvement in positive response rates to the eight selected survey items, FAA had not made successful achievement of this goal a performance expectation for managers. Therefore, GAO recommended that the FAA Administrator hold its managers accountable for the outcomes of the Federal Human Capital Survey Action Plan by establishing a performance expectation that FAA managers will achieve the plan's stated increases in positive responses to designated survey items. In 2014, GAO confirmed that FAA established an expectation in executive performance plans to hold executives accountable for improving FAA scores on the government-wide Federal Employee Viewpoint (Fedview) Survey. The 2014 FAA Executive Performance Management Plan describes the expectation that effective leadership includes promoting the FAA workplace as a model of equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion while supporting hiring reform, employee engagement, and leadership development initiatives to attract, motivate, and retain top talent. The Plan expects executives to incorporate Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) concepts into overall leadership responsibilities, including prevention and elimination of all forms of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Finally, the Executive Performance Management Plan also sets the expectation that executives work to improve the FAA's scores on the Employee Viewpoint Survey by developing and implementing plans to address performance culture and identified leadership issues. FAA Officials said that all executives have a shared short-term incentive goal tied to pay that seeks to increase the FAA's ranking in the Best Places to Work results to the top 25% by 2018. As a result of these actions, FAA has risen in rankings of the Best Places to Work from the bottom 1% of federal sub-agencies in 2008 to the top 40% of sub-agencies in 2013 based upon scores in the Employee Viewpoint Survey.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA can hire, motivate, and retain the talented staff it needs to operate the national airspace system and implement the transition to NextGen, Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to hold its managers accountable for the outcomes of the Federal Human Capital Survey Action Plan by establishing a performance expectation that FAA managers will achieve the plan's stated increases in positive responses to designated survey items.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Aviation is critical to the nation's economic well-being, global competitiveness, and national security. The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) 48,000 employees guide aircraft, oversee safety, and maintain air traffic control equipment. FAA will need these skills and additional expertise to address evolving missions. In 2009, GAO reported that FAA employee responses to OPM's 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey placed the agency well behind the rest of the federal government in overall job and organizational satisfaction, as well as satisfaction with their leaders. FAA was taking actions that could improve employee satisfaction with their leaders over time. For example, FAA developed a Federal Human Capital Survey 2009-2010 Action Plan, which focused on improving FAA's positive response rates to selected survey items related to leadership. However, FAA had not established accountability for the plan's success. Therefore, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to hold the agency accountable to Congress and the American people by disclosing the plan, actions, goals, and outcomes in publicly available reports to Congress, such as the annual performance and accountability report. In 2014, GAO confirmed that FAA's Performance and Accountability Report (PAR) is publicly available online. The PAR discloses: (1) FAA's actions and goals for 2014-2018, related to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey; and (2) outcomes of OPM's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for FAA. As a result, FAA will be publicly held accountable for its actions, goals, and outcomes in order to ensure that FAA can hire, motivate, and retain the talented staff it needs.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA can hire, motivate, and retain the talented staff it needs to operate the national airspace system and implement the transition to NextGen, Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to hold the agency accountable to Congress and the American people by disclosing the plan, actions, goals, and outcomes in publicly available reports to Congress, such as the annual performance and accountability report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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