Grassroots group trying to improve employee morale at HUD

By Katie Howard
Federal News Radio

The Department of Housing and Urban Development ranked at only number 20 this year on The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey by the Partnership for Public Service. However, a budding grassroots group of agency employees called the Under 5 Group seeks to improve its agency’s morale, inch up those rankings and find ways to keep their newest hires aboard and not from wanting to jump ship.

“Under 5 is really focused on what we can do to make the agency better by identifying problems – some from senior leadership that they’ve asked us to look into and some from ideas that we’ve seen – that aren’t new to the government, aren’t new to bureaucracy,” said HUD’s Laura Kunkel, special assistant to the deputy assistant secretary for special needs.

She spoke with Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp on Thursday about how the group representing both younger and older employees who have less than five years of experience with the agency is improving the overall employee experience and its retention rate.


“One of our biggest successes last year has been a rotations policy that we have been able to change the way HUD does rotations … so now any employee no matter their job or their location can rotate within the agency for developmental experience for a few months and then bring those skills back to their home office,” Kunkel said.

Transitioning from the oldest workforce

The formation of the Under 5 Group was sparked in part because of the interest and energy of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan but “mostly because we’re seeing all this new talent leaving,” Kunkel said. And it is important for this group to get to the bottom of why that is since the agency is currently in transition from the “oldest workforce in the government to the youngest workforce.”

Under 5 members and the agency’s senior leadership meet regularly. The change in rotations is due in part to the information and feedback provided by this employee group. Other areas of interest on the table are how to get new employees more engaged.

“That’s something they really care about and we’ve been able to share with them some data that we’ve looked at, some focus groups, informally, that we’ve been able to put together and we are always asking others for ideas that we can shoot their way and ask for their guidance on,” she said.

Under 5 is also working on what the group calls “innovation time,” a concept of borrowing solutions from the private sector that could be applied to the federal in solving agency issues like a “slow onboarding process, mentoring relationships and just lack of communication about what everything in the agency does,” according to Kunkel.

Let’s do lunch

The group also meets for weekly seminars where an “older employee who has been around for a while can talk about what their office does, what they’ve learned in the agency and people in the field can hear more what headquarters is up to and about places they may eventually want to rotate,” she said.

What helps the employee group the most with its findings is a sincere partnership with the agency leadership. For example, Kunkel said HUD’s employees raised issue when the agency decided to remove Google chrome from their computers as an Internet browser.

“Many of us were used to using that at home, we saw that as the latest and the greatest and didn’t understand the security reasons,” she said. But the group expressed its sentiments to the secretary. And as a result, Google chrome was “reinstated that same week.”

HUD’s Under 5 Group is becoming a big proponent of welcoming its newest people. The agency is “intentionally growing relationships maybe it’s taking them to lunch,” said Kunkel. “In the field, they have done some really awesome peer mentoring – when you are joining an office which hasn’t had a new employee in five or ten years even just having someone to lunch with is so important to whether or not you like where you are working.”

A representative from a HUD field office concurred. Charlie Francis, a portfolio management specialist in the Boston HUD office, said the Under 5 Group in his office is about “find your desk, find your friends and find your career.”

Francis spoke with Federal Drive host Tom Temin. He said the kind of support Under 5 provides in his location is crucial as there is a “steep learning curve” and the agency is always changing so newer employees have to rely on the people that have been at the agency awhile. The Boston field office has implemented a type of buddy system.

The Under 5 Group has also looked at data over the three years and it has identified prospects “who are used to being in college, then grad school maybe a fellowship and are looking for another place to move on to,” said Kunkel. “We wanted to find a way to engage them and make the agency more attractive to new employees,” said Kunkel.

Change takes time

HUD once ranked in last place on the 2010 Best Places to Work survey. The agency is trying to keep history from repeating by listening to the suggestions of the Under 5 Group and minding this year’s survey results.

“But change takes time. We don’t expect anything to happen overnight. We have improved over the last two years, since I have been at the agency and it’s something senior leadership takes very seriously as well,” said Kunkel. “We’re hoping to improve the agency from this grass roots level while they have put together a task force to identify some specific ways to target questions that we ranked poorly on in the survey and many of those ideas are coming from the under 5 Group.”