Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mark Calabria testifies at a Senate hearing in December.

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mark Calabria testifies at a Senate hearing in December. Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

Federal Housing Finance Agency Improves Its Employee Satisfaction Scores

It’s “important for all federal employees to be regularly reminded about the bigger impact they have,” said Director Mark Calabria. 

Mark Calabria is coming up on his two-year anniversary as Federal Housing Finance Agency director, which coincides with improved and overwhelmingly positive scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey for fiscal 2020. 

President Trump nominated Calabria to lead the independent, regulatory agency, which has about 780 employees, after Mel Watt finished his five-year term. Calabria assumed office on April 9, 2019, making fiscal 2020 the first full fiscal year under his leadership. After being delayed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic, the annual survey was administered. The agency shared the 2020 results exclusively with Government Executive. The Office of Personnel Management has not released the full FEVS results yet, but they will be released later this month, according to a source familiar with the survey. 

In fiscal 2020, 82% of FHFA employees responded positively that they recommend their organization as a good place to work, compared to 69.3% in fiscal 2019. Some other large increases in positive responses from fiscal 2019 were:

  • “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve,” (40.3% to 58.8%);
  • “Employees are recognized for providing high quality products and services,” (48.2% to 69.7%);
  • “In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce,” (43% to 66.1%); and,
  • “Senior leaders demonstrate support for work/life programs,” (68% to 87%).

The only decreases were on reasonable workload and pay satisfaction, which were two and one percentage points lower, respectively, from last year. Some results, notable given the majority of fiscal 2020 was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, were: 

  • “Employees are protected from health and safety hazards on the job,” (88.9% to 94.3%); 
  • “My supervisor supports my need to balance work and other life issue,” (87.9% to 89.1%); and,
  • “How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization,” (56.9% to 74.9%). 

Six weeks before Watt left, an inspector general found that he “attempted to coerce or induce” a female subordinate, Simone Grimes, into a relationship by implying he would use his position to help her career after she filed a sexual harassment complaint. Watt denied the allegations. The agency reached a settlement with Grimes in September 2019, with which she said she was pleased.

On the question, “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal,” 66.1% of respondents reported positively to the fiscal 2020 survey, which was up from 59.3% in fiscal 2019.

Government Executive interviewed Calabria earlier this week about the results and his tenure at the agency thus far. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

What have been some of your goals as director and things you're most proud of? After almost two years in office, how do you think that's reflected in these survey results?

I'm about, I guess, a month short of two years [as director]. But I also had the benefit of being the lead staffer on the Senate Banking Committee when the legislation to create the agency was passed. And so I came to the agency with the real history of what were the problems that Congress is trying to solve?...The agency's birth came out of the housing crisis, the great recession of 2008.

Our No. 1 job at the agency is to bring stability to the housing market, so that we can make sure that we're protecting families. And this was really something I communicated and really tried to emphasize, even pre-COVID and obviously COVID has a housing aspect to it...So first of all, just clearly communicating and regularly communicating with the staff, as well as listening...Perhaps the most important characteristic of good leadership is modesty. 

I worked on the statute for the agency, I've dealt with the agency externally for a long time, but everything always looks different on the inside than it does on the outside. So one of the first things we did in early 2019, we set up focus groups, we created an employee engagement committee, really just tried to hear from the staff, what were the obstacles? I also related to them that I see primarily, my job is, how do I create the external environments whether it's relationships with the Hill, whether it's relationships with other stakeholders, such as industry or consumer advocates, where the staff of FHFA can do their job? And I think that that was reflected in some of the FEVS scores.

It's also, I think, important for all federal employees to be regularly reminded about the bigger impact they have. It's easy sitting at your desk or at your home in this circumstance and kind of forget the people you have an impact on.

When I walked in the door, I think something like 87% of our employees were rated “outstanding” or “excellent.” And my view coming in was kind of if everybody’s outstanding, then nobody’s really outstanding. It's interesting to me, given some of the increases in some of these questions, that this was actually done at a time, where we brought a little more definition, if you will, to our internal employee ratings that resulted in...less grade inflation, if you will. And I think some of that's really reflected. 

We really tried to come in and say, how do we make sure we really are recognizing the truly outstanding employees? How do we lift them off to try to empower them to do their job? And again, because at the end of the day, that's how the mission has got to be; the mission of the agency is going to be successful and people feel like that they're having an impact, that they're being recognized for their impact. 

I think it's fair to say that, while our mission, in my opinion, is incredibly important–– we oversee what's almost a $7 trillion footprint in the economy we are probably the regulator that's foremost responsible for stability in the housing market––but I think it's fair to say that we recognize, we're not as well known as, say, the Federal Reserve. And so some of what we've been trying to accomplish is making the agency more known outside of Washington...I think everybody really enjoys reading about what their agency is doing in the paper and getting a positive satisfaction about that. And hopefully, it reduces the questions that get around the Thanksgiving table about what exactly is it that you do again?

Transitioning to the pandemic, can you talk about its impact on your workforce operations and the work itself you’re doing? 

First of all, the economic impact of job loss and the pandemic, really made it a stress for families to either pay their mortgage or pay their rent. And so, because of that, we set up forbearance programs even before the CARES Act was passed, which were later codified into the CARES Act so that we can make sure that we can help people experiencing financial distress because of COVID. And of course, we recognize there is a public health aspect as well. So for instance, there were about 200,000 families in Fannie and Freddie loans that were already well into a foreclosure process before COVID and these were often households where they hadn't been able to pay a mortgage in two years, it was unlikely that they're going back on their feet. So we pressed pause, and all of that.

We really saw a fairly significant increase in productivity, particularly, you go back to March, April, May, June, where I think the staff really performed above and beyond. And, of course, some of it was that commitment to the mission and I would make sure that I would regularly remind staff why we're doing what we're doing and that their actions were saving lives and keeping families safe. And again, reminding them of the importance of the work that they were doing, not that they need reminding, but I think it helps keep that morale going. 

We were already doing, as it ended up being somewhat coincidental, that we were already doing some divisional work from home tests before the rest of the federal government went to telework because we wanted to [see] what was our ability to do that. We also had some of our exam[ination] staff pre-COVID off site. So we have a significant part of the workforce that were already off site, if you will. So we have some experience with it. But it really was a bit of a transition, obviously, in terms of IT support…[and] we've all had to adjust to the Skype, Zoom calls and such. And I think it's worked far better than I probably would have expected. 

I think in the past year, we've hired more people than we've had, since the agency was formed in 2008....Congress took us out of the appropriations process, we're funded by assessments on the entities that we regulate and it really was to make sure that we could have the resources we needed. And there were a number of areas where I thought we needed to expand what we're doing. One of which was just a year ago, we created the Division of Research and Statistics. And it really helped us have an informed data driven approach to COVID when it hit because we had gotten that started in January, but that required staffing up. 

One of my concerns has been, how do you bring on new staff into an agency, particularly if they're new staff? How do you make sure that they're being mentored? How do you make sure that they're finding out what their jobs are and finding out they've got enough connection with their supervisor? We've tried to regularly do interactives, for instance, I regularly do new staff lunches. I was doing this before COVID, where this was in person, but now I still do the occasional new staff lunch...And it really was a commitment of mine coming in that I guess at that point, we had 600 some now we've got close to 700 employees, I wanted before my time was up to have a conversation, one on one with every staffer at the agency. 

It's also reflective of one of the first things I did, I think my second day on the job, [which] was walk the entire agency, just knocking on people's doors, introducing myself and getting an opportunity to hear from them. 

You look at organizations that have gotten themselves in trouble and it's almost always the case that somebody somewhere in the organization has the right information, has the right perspective, but it just never gets to the leadership. So we've really tried to make sure that we've got an agency where people can raise their hands, they see something, say something, where there's not the culture of keeping your head down, but sharing. 

I realize this was before your time, but can you talk about anything you’ve done following the sexual harassment incident with your predecessor since these issues can impact people's experiences at an agency and thus their feedback on a survey?

Absolutely, absolutely. I'll go back to my swearing in at the agency and remarks on my first day. I really emphasized that it was critically important to me that we have an agency where everybody feels welcomed and feels valued. So that was something that I said to the entire staff on my first day. I think you somewhat see this, I think it's question eight, the question is “I can disclose a suspected violation of law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” And that has increased, I think we still have some more work to go there. 

We worked very quickly to make sure that that issue was addressed fairly. And I think that's reflected in the statements that were made by [Grimes’] counsel. And we made sure that anybody who had complaints were being heard and were being respected...[Also we created] our Office of Equal Opportunity and Fairness where we can make sure we have a system where people could bring complaints, and can feel secure about that. We brought in a new leader, Deb Chew from [the National Institutes of Health], who has just done a terrific job in this area. So we beefed up the staffing in this area, had talks pretty regularly about it, and again, just wanting to make sure that people feel safe in this environment.

Looking forward, what are your goals for the next year and will the presidential transition impact them? How do you believe all this will affect federal employees’ experience at the agency?

My hope is certainly a year from now that we will be through the worst of [COVID-19], although, we're certainly going to have borrowers and renters that are still facing economic distress even later in the year. So for most jobs continuing to deal with COVID, I take great pride in I think the jobs that was cross-governmental the last year in terms of alignment, and as you may know, Fannie and Freddie and the federal loans banks are one part of the mortgage market, but you have a number of government agencies, such as [the Federal Housing Administration], and [Housing and Urban Development], or [Department of Agriculture], or [Veterans Affairs Department] all have mortgage products. And there was a tremendous amount of alignment. And this really was meant to make sure that if you were a borrower you got fairly consistent treatments, regardless of what loan you got your channel's room. 

We've had some really good conversations with the White House and the administration. And I still very much believe that it best serves borrowers and renters if there's a consistent approach across government. And we have found that to be the case and an openness during transition….I expect further alignment on COVID related issues to work well, and it's worked well so far in the last couple of months.

More broadly, certainly the primary objective of the agency mission is to bring stability to the mortgage market, to the housing market....We certainly expect to be able to work cooperatively with the same agenda, the same objectives...And I think that that's a view that's broadly shared within the administration.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

To me, the really kind of big change is, in terms of what I think the FEVS are reporting, as I talked about earlier, [is the] lifting up of high performers. And you saw that real increase in recognition in that way that I thought was really positive. And then I think the second set of issues, which are kind of reflected in the questions 26, 27 and 31, where really the motivation and commitment, and as well as honesty and integrity and leadership really saw big change.

Every Monday morning, we have an executive meeting, which is the senior leaders of the agency. And so one of the things I thought would be helpful early on, when I came in, I just told the executive team “from now on, why don't you bring a plus one, bring your deputy or bring somebody from your division who you think could benefit from the conversation or add something to the conversation.” And so it's also something I've said to employees, particularly when they're doing meetings, if you will, on Zoom and such.

When we do town halls I take random questions. I try to answer them and I don't try to do “get back to you later on that.” I really do try to encourage people to raise questions and even to be critical if people see something, they think we should do something different. I've always been welcoming of that.