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Commentary: The Power of Mission vs. Dysfunction

What HUD shows us about the limits of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

I was interested your recent article “Powered by Mission” by Charles Clark. My father was a project manager with NASA’s first manned space program, Project Mercury, and I can attest to the power of mission at that agency.

As a nonmanagement employee at HUD’s Boston Regional Office, I can also attest that the power of mission can be trumped by the power of organizational dysfunction.

I am providing an employee’s take on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey using HUD as a case study. The agency serves as a good study, first, in the limits of the FEVS and, more importantly, the self-limiting processes of an agency itself.

The FEVS is not perfect. The questions are simplistic and generic, and have the bias as a management vehicle of representing what management thinks employees are thinking about. On the one hand, this allows for standardization and easy tabulation, and provides for the ability to make comparisons across agencies and over time. But employee concerns are not as “black and white” as presented. For example, employees are asked about their supervisors. Yet it is often the second-line or third-line manager who is the cause of much discontent, which is not picked up by the FFEVS.

While the survey isn’t perfect, the results do provide useful insights into an agency, and there are reasons why HUD consistently ranks at the bottom of the rankings. Yet at HUD there has been no attempt to follow up with employees to try to identify the root problems, such as by conducting a HUD-specific survey.

Two chief issues at HUD are pay and promotions, but not in the way that the FEVS treats them.

HUD is a conglomerate of different, independent program areas (community development and public housing are two areas, for example), with service delivered through 90 field offices. The FEVS asks: Do you think promotions are awarded fairly? Do you think you are paid fairly? For promotions, the issue at HUD isn’t about fairness, it’s about the fact that promotions are rarely posted in the field; almost all promotions are in headquarters, even though 70 percent of employees work in the field. In my program area, there has never been a promotional opportunity posted in the 10 years I have been here.

And regarding pay, it is not the absolute level of pay that is the issue, but the fact that job grading is not consistent between program areas or between and within offices. In my program area, duties are so blended that customer service reps are assigned senior analyst duties and vice versa. Between the two phenomena, the result is a caste system, in which an employee is stuck in the position for which s/he was hired, with no hope for change other than by leaving the agency.

Because the questions aren’t targeted specifically enough, we end up with generalized responses by management—variations on the standard “we hear you.” And what happens when management “hears” employees? One response: the former deputy secretary initiated an “I Believe in HUD” campaign, whereby employees would wear buttons, blog online, post comments on a board in each office, etc. Is wearing “I Like HUD” buttons really the answer to the significant employee discontent identified repeatedly in the annual FEVS? This is in the same category as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign to end drug use.

In the article, John Kamensky, Senior Fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, offers an easy and unearned “out” for HUD’s poor standing, saying that the agency was hollowed out under the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan left office 25 years ago. Where has HUD management been in the intervening quarter-century? The fact that HUD consistently ranks at the bottom of the governmentwide rankings, regardless of the exactness of the questions, provides support for the belief that something is amiss.

Kamensky also states that things are turning around at HUD and that there is now strong leadership two or three levels down. Interestingly, he has unknowingly identified, in a nutshell, the problem at HUD: Leadership stops at the top.

When Shaun Donovan became HUD secretary, he brought great enthusiasm for “righting the ship,” immediately articulating a vision for the Agency via a Transformation Initiative he launched. With work and commitment, we would have a re-engineered HUD with respect to both operations and human resources management. Five years later, the only change in human resources management has been the streamlining of the hiring process.

Nothing else has changed, and HUD’s HR practices remain mired in the mid-20th century. The reason is, while senior managers have launched the change initiatives they have never implemented a process for ensuring that changes are adopted at the line level. They naively think that the ideas will be carried down through the hierarchy by gravity and then root themselves.

What has happened, not surprisingly, is that when the ideas hit the third or fourth level, gravity fails because the ideas hit the impenetrable wall of ensconced bureaucrats, most of who whom have been at HUD their whole careers and almost all of whom have no interest in change, or will not admit that change is necessary. In line with human nature, no line manager thinks the FEVS results apply to him or her or to their business unit, and without prompting they won’t move into the new millennium (even though it has been under way for 14 years now).

I admit it is easy to dismiss these statements as clichéd generalizations. But, prior to joining HUD, I worked for a small private firm, two Fortune 500 companies, a small federal agency and a large federal agency. The problems with the management culture at the line level at HUD go well beyond what could be considered normal organizational molasses. I have never seen anything that comes close to the culture of nonresponsiveness, opaqueness and lack of accountability as at HUD.

I have offered, in several venues, suggestions for helping ensure changes are implemented at the line level at HUD, including:

  • Require managers to develop transformation action plans, just as they are now required to produce management action plans.
  • Include in managers’ performance reviews an evaluation of how they have achieved results under, or demonstrated commitment to, the Transformation Initiative.
  • Provide mandatory organizational behavior training to managers using real-life case studies of how core values have not been observed, as provided by employees.

These suggestions have generated no interest. But cheerleading alone won’t accomplish change.

Bill Matthews is a senior analyst at the Housing and Urban Development Department.

(Image via Csaba Peterdi/Shutterstock.com)