NASA’s Employee Satisfaction Survey: The Truth Behind the Numbers

written by David Mixson

Government employees are asked to fill out a survey every year to measure how well we like our jobs.

It’s called the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), and it consists of approximately 100 questions. Each survey has a unique code, so results can be traced to the agency, center, and branch levels.

NEWS FLASH: For the past 11 years in a row, NASA employees have self-graded the agency as the best place to work in large government.

Managers love telling the world about it. But is this a metric we should use to measure our success?

What This Means

The award is usually made out to be more impressive than it really is. So, before we go any further, let me explain it.

Winning the top spot means:

NASA was self-voted as the best place to work among the 17 largest government agencies for the last 11 years in a row.

Sometimes, NASA managers get a little sloppy with their description and say, “NASA was voted as the best place to work (period)” or “NASA was voted as the best place to work in government.” Both statements are incorrect.

Our Competition

To get an idea of our competition, the Department of Health and Human Services was voted as the second best place to work in big government; the Intelligence Community was third; and the Social Security Administration was voted dead last out of the 17 agencies.1

Is this even a fair comparison?

This survey doesn’t compare working at NASA to working at Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, SpaceX, Boeing, Apple, Google, or Disney. It compares working at NASA to working at the IRS.

NEWS FLASH: NASA employees rated the agency as a better place to work than the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Every year, I struggle with how I should answer the questionnaire. Should I be brutally honest, or should I give payback for the pizza party my boss offered if enough of us complete the survey?

Sometimes, I wonder if the NASA Senior Leadership Team gets together and says: “If we can capture the best place to work metric again this year, maybe the press won’t notice our Old Space launch vehicle is projected to cost $4B a flight.”

They love reminding folks in fancy speeches: “NASA is the best place to work in government for the eleventh consecutive year in a row.”

See the dysfunction in this? More smoke and mirrors.

What All This Means

Based on the facial expressions of the SpaceX engineers when they stick another first-stage booster landing, I’d say that happy NASA engineers are still missing out. I wish you could see some of the looks on people’s faces on my elevator ride up each morning.

If these are the most satisfied employees in big government, I’d hate to work at the Social Security Administration.

On the bright side, at least NASA has the top spot at something. Maybe that’s why NASA managers focus on it so much. That, and because we don’t have much to talk about since Shuttle except cost overruns, schedule slips, and the fact that we’ve given up low earth orbit to the little guy, SpaceX.

In the end, NASA isn’t beating out New Space startups as the best place to work in aerospace. We’re beating out 16 other massive federal agencies that are in the same gene pool. Now you know the truth.

P.S. I need your help. The next time you see a NASA official boasting about the agency self-voting itself as the best place to work, would you respond by posting a link to this article? I’d like to clear up the misinformation on this topic.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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