How to Speed Up Flood Assistance

Since Harvey, Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department has been criticized severely by HUD, the GLO, media, and flood victims alike for poor performance and non-performance in flood assistance efforts. Thursday, Keith Bynam, the Interim Director of the Department, and Temika Jones, the Department’s Assistant Director and Chief Financial Officer, informed city council members about other issues: severe and repeated budget overages in their department.

Their explosive testimony drew sharp questions and raised many more about the department’s management and oversight by the City.

Eight Main Recommendation to Improve Disaster Assistance

Bynam and Jones never did get to finish their presentation. Unfortunately, recommendations on how to fix the department’s problems were at the end. Arguably, Pages 22 and 23 should have been the focus of their presentation.

Bynam and Jones made eight recommendations as part of their Corrective Action Plan for flood assistance.

  1. Reduce future Admin spending and forecast Admin dollars needed to execute programs.
  2. Restructure reporting lines to other city departments in consultation with Central HR.
  3. Re-evaluate all staffing decisions approved by the former director, Tom McCasland.
  4. Align future expenditures with program spending.
  5. Implement strike teams to focus on GLO submissions
  6. Timely submission of draw requests to GLO (within 90 business days)
  7. Continue operating successful programs (such as Multifamily, Public Services)
  8. Ensure new CDBG-DR 2017 (Harvey) programs are implemented successfully (Economic Development, Small Rental, Single Family)

Flood Assistance: A Multi-level Problem

The meeting yesterday focused on fixing the negative financial impact to the City. But the impact to flood victims caught up in this bureaucratic miasma needs to be considered simultaneously.

During my business career, I found it hard to go wrong if you structured your organization around clients’ needs. In this case, there are two sets of clients: the GLO and HUD on one hand. And flood victims on the other. Both have one primary need: speed.

  • Some victims are still struggling to fix their homes or recover from the financial devastation caused by Harvey.
  • The GLO needs to use the money appropriated by Congress and HUD or lose it when program deadlines expire.

One program (Home Repair) has already expired. And 1501 days out from Hurricane Harvey, hundreds of millions in funds remain to be distributed – despite overspending on administrative expenses, such as employee salaries and computer expenses, by 400% last year.

City Council needs to look at the flood assistance from their clients’ perspectives and start there. How can they speed up the assistance?

Insights from Former Employees, the GLO, and Flood Victims

Not wanting to rely solely on Bynam and Jones recommendations, I also talked to former employees of the department, the GLO, as well as flood victims who described several problems:

  • An accounting system that can’t recognize liabilities incurred on behalf of the federal government in reimbursement programs
  • Featherbedding (keeping and protecting political friends on a payroll, often by stretching out work)
  • Personnel with lack of experience who don’t know what to do
  • Inadequate management and training
  • Refusing help from the GLO
  • Turnover in managerial ranks (five managers in the Home Repair program alone since Harvey, according to Bynam)
  • No one from the Mayor on down ever asking the questions, such as “Why are we in this business? Do we want to stay in it?”

It’s amazing how closely these comments map back to the recommendations made by Bynam and Jones. The two lists closely parallel each other, though they are not identical.

Ten People to Pay Two Bills?

In her testimony yesterday, Ms. Jones, who joined the department a year ago, said that, shortly after arriving, she discovered that, “We had 10 people paying bills in accounts payable and two people requesting reimbursements. That change was made immediately.” She said, “The GLO compliments us at least weekly on the progress we are making, but we have a long way to go.”

Friends in the media who have covered the department for decades describe persistent problems that previous mayors and city councils found convenient to ignore.

I applaud Jones and Bynam for having the courage to air dirty laundry in public. That is the only way these problems will ever get fixed. Departments like Housing and Community Development cannot become fiefdoms for featherbedding, or as one former employee put it “a receptacle for misfits and castoffs from other departments.”

Some Unsolicited Advice: Restructure Around “The Right Five”

I had a highly successful information technology (IT) client for 30 years that did government as well as private-sector work. They believed that for their clients to be successful, IT systems had to deliver the “right five”:

  • The right information
  • In the right form
  • For the right people
  • In the right place
  • At the right time

Example: a successful airline must juggle equipment availability, maintenance, reservations, pricing, baggage, seating, staffing, gate availability, check-in, air traffic control, weather, seating and other variables…for each flight, thousands of times a day.

For the system to work efficiently, customers, employees, and vendors see only what they need, when they need it, where they need it, in a form that lets them do the task at hand. Software guides them through each step.

It’s safe to say that Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department does not have “the right five.” I say that based on the testimony we heard yesterday, from City Council reactions, from former employees, and from the persistent criticisms offered by HUD, the GLO, and flood victims.

Checking the “Flight Status” of Flood Applications

Neither the City Controller, City Council, Mayor, HUD, GLO, the Department, nor flood victims can tell the “flight status” of pending applications at a glance. That’s how you get an economic development plan where the City has spent $3.6 million to get $3,260 of aid approved (see line 3, page 14). That needs fixing.

And part of the fix will require managing the information so that low-wage employees can perform their individual roles in a very complex process.

The whole notion of “trying” to file paperwork within 90 business days feels repugnant to me. But with the “right five,” filing those applications in real time with a fraction of the people could happen automatically.

If the City were a private business, it would not be trying to figure out how to timely file flood assistance applications right now. It would be filing for bankruptcy. We seriously need to fix this.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/8/2021

1501 days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.