Donovan focuses on morale to turn around HUD

Friday - 11/18/2011, 4:43pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

Download mp3

In legislation passed Thursday, Congress gave a slight boost to Department of Housing and Urban Development programs to help homeless veterans. It's a positive sign for HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who is trying to turn around an agency perennially at the bottom of federal rankings.

Donovan said his emphasis on data-based performance paid off.

"Where we've actually been able to show that programs are successful and save money in the long term, we've been able to get bipartisan support behind those programs," he said.

He spoke Thursday to federal managers at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington.

Donovan may seem to be an unlikely choice for keynote speaker. His agency has been considered the "poster child for scandal-ridden, dysfunctional bureaucracy," as noted by Government Executive magazine, which hosted the conference.

But Donovan said he is trying to straighten out the agency, by setting its top goals and building alliances around them.

"Too often in government we don't know what success looks like," he said. "It's incredibly simple but it's incredibly powerful to say ‘Let's all agree on what success looks like and let's set a specific target.' That can organize not only internally everyone on the team to be focused in the same direction, but actually it really helps to organize other agencies you work with."

HUD has partnered with the Department of Veterans Administration to implement the homelessness programs targeted at veterans—something that resonates with lawmakers and the public.

The VA has lobbied for HUD programs at the Capitol, rather than compete for money, he said. HUD has joined with the Treasury and Energy Departments on other initiatives.

Donovan also has emphasized collaboration within the agency.

Year after year, HUD scores poorly in the employee viewpoint survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. Donovan said he considered that survey his scorecard and he analyzed the data.

"We clearly heard that training and creating career ladders at HUD was a big challenge and something we weren't doing well," he said. "Even in tough times, we doubled our training budget and created a new HUD academy for workforce learning.

HUD ranked second to last in the 2011 list of best places to work in the federal government. It is produced by the Partnership for Public Service based on analysis of the employee viewpoint survey. But the agency showed improved over last year in training, teamwork, effective leadership and strategic management.

"The things we focused on last year, we moved the needle," he said.

But difficult issues, such as establishing an effective performance management system, remain elusive.

Donovan said that is one of his top internal priorities. "We've created HUDStat, a performance management system for the agency. But we haven't connected it yet in the way we need to the performance management system on an individual basis," he said.

But the agency's Senior Executive Service members have drafted a new performance management system for themselves because they didn't think the agency was holding them accountable for the right things. The agency's Senior Executive Service members are leading the way.

"They said this cannot be just about individual performance. If agency doesn't succeed, we don't succeed. They agreed if we didn't score high enough on collaboration in the employee viewpoint survey, not a single SES would get an ‘outstanding'" evaluation ranking, he said.

He admitted that low morale is prevalent at the agency, especially with today's budget pressures. HUD is combating that with an "I love HUD" campaign meant to instill pride. Employees have created You Tube videos explaining why they chose to work for the agency.

"The irony is, at a time when perhaps we are least appreciated in the federal government, is a time when the American people need us the most," he said. "We cannot get discouraged and let the slings and arrows and anger that people feel—we cannot take it personally."

RELATED STORIES:

HUD finds program success in review sessions

Analysis: Across-the-board workforce cuts 'guaranteed' to cause damage

Survey names best places to work in federal government