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HUD management, unions suffering communication breakdown over reorg efforts

Without a doubt, changes are coming to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Whether it’s in the back-office or mission areas, the agency will look much different in the next few years.

The two employee unions representing HUD employees, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees, agree with the concept that HUD needs to be improved and transformed in some areas.

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But AFGE and NFFE officials said for the Trump administration to be successful, like the Obama and Bush administrations before them, they need the employees on the front lines have to have a real say in the changes.

But so far, Holly Salamido, the president of the AFGE Council 222 of HUD locals, said that hasn’t happened.

“They know where we are. They know how to engage us. I think there is simply no interest. And it’s quite interesting that Mr. [David] Eagles claims to have engaged employees by setting up basically an electronic suggestion box, and he has been on the news claiming he is seeking input from employees, and it’s really rather extraordinary in that you don’t reform a Cabinet-level agency with anecdotal comments from employees,” Salamido said, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We talk to a lot of people and have years and years of experience at the agency, and we can provide a wealth of information. But it seems pretty clear they don’t have any interest in talking to representatives of employees. This suggestion box where they are taking employee comments is simply a sham. When they haven’t released their draft reform plan, there is nothing to comment on.”

The National Federation of Federal Employees also represents HUD employees.

Elizabeth McDargh, the treasurer of NFFE and the co-chairwoman of the HUD-NFFE Labor-Management Forum, said agency officials declined to share details of the reorganization plan, saying they are pre-decisional. McDargh said, however, NFFE has worked with prior administrations to review pre-decisional documents and offer comments.

“Labor-Management Forum is supposed to be the vehicle where if management has an idea, something they are contemplating changing in the workplace, they can actually work with their labor partners to try to flesh out some ideas, so when they go to implement and it goes to a traditional negotiation track, there will be less issues of contention,” McDargh said in an interview. “That can work very well if you have transparency and a good honest discussion.”

She said the Obama administration used this approach several times to address some sensitive issues, and even asked the union not to release the information publicly so as not to scare off employees and management alike.

Definition of pre-decisional unclear

Eagles, HUD’s chief operating officer, disagreed with Salamido and McDargh’s assessment of the process so far. He said HUD management has been inclusive.

Through this electronic suggestion box, meetings and other interactions, Eagle said the agency has received hundreds of comments from all parts of the agency and has reached out to the unions multiple times for their input.

“We recognize the importance of the unions and purpose that they are there to serve. Certainly, we have offered to engage with pre-decision discussions with our unions that are out there. We have certainly done that. We began that actually at the same time that we began it with the larger organization, which would have been in the early June timeframe,” Eagles said, in an interview. “So we put that olive branch out there for discussions, and in not every case, have we had participation on the union side. In one case, it was only written submissions. In another case, we did have forums where, at least in one case that I’m aware of, there was no attendance. In some of the other cases with some of the other unions that are out there, we’ve had some discussion as part of the labor-management framework. So we do respect the framework that we are underneath.”

As for the pre-decisional sharing of the plan’s specifics, Eagles said Office of Management and Budget Circular A-11 doesn’t allow for the sharing of the reform plans before they are approved. Agencies submitted their reform plans to OMB on June 30. By mid-September, OMB was expected to return those plans back to agencies to begin sharing details with employees.

HUD provided Federal News Radio with a timeline of meetings and requests to the unions for information. The timelines show two emails and a letter to AFGE officials, and a meeting on June 12 that AFGE didn’t attend. NFFE received an email and two meetings where Henry Hensley, the director of HUD’s Office of Strategic Planning and Management, presented to the labor forum and asked for input.

But McDargh said Hensley offered no details, even broad-brush concepts, about the reform plan, saying only they were pre-decisional.

AFGE ultimately decided to send an eight-page letter to HUD management, outlining a host of suggestions for change, including conducting a workforce analysis to more clearly define job descriptions, reduce both the number of contractors and supervisory or Senior Executive Service members, and improve how the agency manages its office space.

As for the June 12 meeting, Salamido said it was with HUD’s Employee and Labor Relations representative and Hensley, who she said wasn’t empowered to make the type of decisions that will be needed to reform the agency.

Draft plan details

Salamido said when the draft plan from June, which Federal News Radio obtained and shared with AFGE, talks about closing small offices around the country, AFGE should be working with Eagles, the agency’s COO, or similar high-ranking officials. She said employees are nervous and concerned about the future of their jobs and Hensley doesn’t have enough authority to address these types of issues.

HUD’s draft reform plan from June details both administrative and operational changes, including moving several back-office functions to shared services.

A HUD spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the draft reform plan, referring questions about it to OMB.

But other sources confirmed the plan was accurate as of June.

Eagles said the communication with AFGE and NFFE may not have been what the unions are used to or have experienced before, but it doesn’t mean they have been less important or beneficial.

HUD employees will receive their clearest understanding of Secretary Ben Carson’s plans to restructure and reorganize the agency on Sept. 12 during a town hall.

And at the Sept. 12 agency-wide town hall, Eagles said Carson plans to talk about priorities and the initiatives to move the agency forward that are contained in his reform plan. He also will detail how the Reform Plan Champions Council, a new interagency group, will lead those changes.

The career champions group cuts across 10 broad areas:

  • Organize and deliver services more effectively;
  • Improve the way we work;
  • Strengthen fiscal responsibility and controls;
  • Reduce burdensome regulations;
  • Increase homeownership and financial viability;
  • Enhance rental assistance;
  • End veteran homelessness;
  • Promote economic mobility;
  • Remove lead and other health hazards;
  • Provide effective disaster recovery.

But because the reform plan is still considered pre-decisional, union officials believe the town hall will be more show than substance.

“To have a reform effort that makes sense and that is really going to ensure that our constituents, the people who receive our services, will get what they need, [HUD management] really needs to get broad-scale input from all of our bargaining unit employees, and that’s what we provide,” Salamido said. “We can provide that input, rather than them getting a few comments here and there that may not really be representative of what’s going on on the front lines.”

NFFE’s McDargh added HUD should give the employees at least an outline of the reform plan before the Sept. 12 meeting so they can be better informed and ask better questions.

“I do not see this as being transparent. I think it’s being very translucent, in that there is some light coming through, you just can’t distinguish what the shadows are behind the material, so it’s not transparent at all, in my opinion” she said. “When someone says change is coming, I think it’s just notification that something big is coming. It doesn’t mean they are being transparent about what is coming.”

Town hall to shed more light on reforms

Eagles said he’s excited about the town hall and the discussion it will bring about.

“The reform plan to me, at HUD anyway, is about our initiatives going forward. This is not a separate thing about reform. This is directionally where we are heading at HUD,” he said. “I know, very clearly, we will walk through what those broad-brush initiatives are. We’ve empowered career champions in the organization to be able to drive these things. The worst thing we can do is isolate political staff in a corner office to figure out how things are going to happen. We want to engage and empower the career workforce to get it done. I think we prove it out by a set of champions who are career in most cases to drive these big initiatives for us. We want to talk through it. We want to talk about teams we are assembling around those, again the career teams in the field and at headquarters and talk about how they can actually engage more wholesomely in this process as well. Again, we are early innings here, but we have to think about the long game.”

As for the relationship with the unions going forward, Eagles said he would meet with union officials.

“We want to be great partners to the unions that are out there. We have to engage them on these things. Again, I’ll say we’ve tried with the efforts that we’ve done so far, and can we do better? Absolutely, we can always do better. I would welcome those conversations with them because I think there is a high degree of alignment. It’s something we all can be proud of. We don’t need people separating this agency. [The agency] has had enough of that over the years, and that’s why we are 23 out of 27 when it comes to Best Places to Work. We’ve got to do better.”

And for AFGE and NFFE, they also say they want to be part of the change in a positive way.

“Our goal is certainly not to stop the reform effort. We understand the new administration has some ideas as to changes they want to make to the agency. All we are asking for is a seat at the table when those decisions are being made and we have an avenue to provide our input to the decision makers at HUD, and have an opportunity to speak to them directly so that they can benefit from our considerable experience at the agency and with our employees,” Salamido said.