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Improving Employee Engagement: Reflections of a Former HUD Deputy Secretary

Mar 14, 2018





What happens when you tie your Employee Engagement effort to shared mission and goals?  Lots.

In 2014, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had the lowest ranking on the Best Places to Work rating of any mid-sized agency.  There were likely many reasons for this ranking – including a recent government shutdown and a year of furloughs and reduced pay.  HUD’s ranking, based on the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) also included the effect of low employee engagement scores.

The people who work at HUD are dedicated to its mission to address community and housing needs.  So why such a low ranking? As we know from a wealth of research, some of it noted in a recent National Academy of Public Administration report titled Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance in Government, employee engagement is a leading indicator.  Addressing employee engagement is critical but it is but it is not the only factor that should be tackled to improve organizational outcomes. 

Diagnosing the Issues

Secretary Julian Castro and I were both new to the agency in 2014, so we took the opportunity to do our own deep dive into the issues raised by the FEVS survey.  HUD has a national footprint, over 8,000 employees (at the time) and 10 regions.  We committed to working with leaders at headquarters and in the field.  And we quickly paired our quantitative data with qualitative information. 

I met with every senior executive in the organization, and along with the Secretary, held town halls virtually or in person with every region within the first three months.  These town halls included open ended time for any question.  To reach more staff, we used virtual engagement tools that allowed for employees to submit improvement ideas and vote on them.  This effort provided early information about what seemed to be contributing to a challenging work environment. We looked closely at the FEVS data. It was based on a 51 percent response rate – so we were in a situation where managers often couldn’t get organizational unit data – there weren’t enough data points to know what was happening on the ground.

What we learned from talking to people and looking at what data we had was that HUD did many things well, but was seen by its employees and stakeholders as operationally weak.  Like many national federal agencies with multiple programs, work was carried out with little coordination and not enough knowledge sharing.  We also learned that employees wanted to be part of the solution.

Our Approach

Based on this assessment of the FEVS data, the HUD executive leadership team took a three-pronged approach to improve employee engagement and to build a stronger HUD:

Solve Problems Together. After assessing what could be improved to make HUD stronger, we solicited ideas for issue areas that needed to be addressed and voted on them across HUD. This effort resulted in selecting 18 projects across multiple, related goals to increase leadership at all levels, improve field engagement with our customers and with headquarters, and improve accountability through better resource management and better operations.  Notably, organizational health issues were most of the key issues that staff identified as getting in the way of doing their best work. 

We paired SES leaders in headquarters with key staff from the field and front-line to accomplish improvements in every category. A series of projects focused on continuous improvement, and we asked program delivery staff to partner with enterprise operations staff to map processes that were pain points and to shorten them.  This approach had the dual benefit of employees working on solving problems they identified while learning a set of tools that can now be applied to improving operations in the future.

Improve Communication. We worked to improve our ways of communicating to and from all parts of the organization – modeling it at the top and asking each Assistant Secretary to create their own communication and engagement strategies.  Programs used newsletters, all-hands meetings, regional and national calls, weekly e-mails and other modes of communication in their action plans.  We continued the use of enterprise-wide use of tools like Switchboard, Yammer and Town Halls to hear directly from employees in person and virtually. This allowed more staff to understand what we were doing and why, and to give real-time feedback on our efforts.

Commit to Getting and Using Better Data. We set a goal to raise participation in the FEVS from 51 percent to 75 percent.  This was the only way we could get data at the organizational unit level.  We also thought higher participation would discourage managers from dismissing the findings as not representative.  We gave hundreds of interested managers and staff access to the FEVS data on unlocktalent.gov directly.  This helped people understand that we were using the data at the lowest organizational unit possible and that they could too.  The FEVS provided an enterprise-wide way for HUD to compare itself to its own past performance, to compare units within HUD and to compare HUD to other agencies.

Results

We witnessed improved outcomes in many areas. For example, we improved hiring times across HUD from 84 days to 12.  We closed out over 70 percent of a single grant program’s closeout backlog and improved processing times for a key housing recapitalization pilot project by 40 percent in one year.  Staff saw the improvements from their efforts and HUD’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores increased on virtually every question.

Notably, HUD’s employee engagement scores increased three years in a row, moving from 57 percent to 69 percent (the Office of Personnel Management considered a 2-point increase in a year a significant achievement). 

The results reminded me that federal agencies can make progress on improving organizational outcomes when there is a strategy to engage the front line directly on improving outcomes, while keeping the mission and stakeholders front and center.  It also helped that leadership was engaged to elevate the issues, define and encourage success and model the way for leaders to emerge at all levels of HUD. 

HUD is no longer the lowest-ranked medium-sized federal agency on the Best Places to Work ranking, and has moved up every year since 2014.

Nani Coloretti is the Senior Vice President for Financial and Business Strategy at the Urban Institute.  She was formerly the Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She has also served at the Department of the Treasury, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, and has held budget and policy positions at the state and local levels.

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