The Department of Veterans Affairs has become one of the best places to work in the federal government, ranking 5th among 17 of the largest agencies in 2021, according to a report published Wednesday.
In a federal government work satisfaction report produced annually by the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group, the VA rose from 8th place in 2020 to the top 5, with employees scoring the department highly as a good place to work and saying they were satisfied with their job and their employer.
The rise in rankings also earned the VA the Most Improved Large Federal Agency for 2021 title, according to the report.
During a breakfast Wednesday with VA employees, Secretary Denis McDonough said the honors can be attributed to the VA's "great public servants" who have made it a "fantastic place to work."
Noting that VA employees worked through the pandemic to care for sick veterans, make decisions on benefits claims and keep national cemeteries running, McDonough said they risked their lives to serve.
"It's no exaggeration to say that VA employees -- and all federal employees -- have been the backbone of this country during the pandemic," McDonough said.
According to the report, VA employees ranked the department highly for matching their skills with their jobs and mission and for effective leadership, including supervisors.
The improvements in the VA's scoring came as satisfaction scores dropped by nearly five points across the federal government.
Analysts said the downturn occurred as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt the workforce, employees returned to the office and the federal employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate went into effect.
The report also noted that federal leadership vacancy rates remain high, affecting the decline in employee engagement and satisfaction scores, which, at 64.5 out of 100 possible points, is significantly lower than the private sector's 79.1 score.
"The sizable drop ... came during President Joe Biden's first year in office," the report stated. "The Senate had confirmed only 55% of the administration's political appointee nominations by the end of 2021. This is lower than the first-year confirmation rate for Presidents Donald Trump (57%), Barack Obama (69%) and George W. Bush (75%)."
On the list of large agencies -- those with more than 15,000 employees -- the VA ranked behind NASA, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Commerce Department and the Intelligence Community.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, Defense Agencies and DoD Field Activities collectively ranked 8th, while the Department of the Air Force ranked 10th; the Department of the Army, 11th; and the Department of the Navy, 12th.
The Department of Homeland Security, which houses the U.S. Coast Guard, ranked last at 17th.
The winner in the medium agency category was the Government Accountability Office, while the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation took top honors among small agencies.
The Best Places to Work score was calculated using a proprietary formula that looks at responses to three questions in the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, according to the report.
Although the VA earned the ranking as the result of surveys conducted by all VA employees, more than 50% of VA health employees reported earlier this year that they didn’t feel supported during the pandemic.
Survey results released in May as part of a VA inspector general report found that less than half of clinical and nonclinical Veterans Health Administration staff were aware of the agency's emotional support resources and one-quarter of the staff was experiencing high levels of stress.
The department also remains on the Government Accountability Office's "High Risk" list, with various programs, including health care services, under scrutiny since 2015.
In 2021, GAO officials said the VA lacks a "clear and comprehensive roadmap to address VA health care concerns and has not demonstrated meaningful progress" to remove itself from the list, which identifies problems and provides recommendations on issues critical to the federal government and the public -- or in the VA's case, to veterans and employees.
Since 2010, the GAO has made about 1,200 recommendations to improve VA administration, programs and services; roughly 70% have been implemented.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.