Costly Brain Drain Continues in Harris County
On April 14, 2022, I wrote about how the brain drain in Harris County government under County Judge Lina Hidalgo compromised productivity and service. At that point, Hidalgo had been in office just 3.25 years. During that time, the heads of 16 out of 20 departments had changed – many more than once. Those 16 departments had had 34 leaders under Hidalgo by then.
To make matters worse, in some cases, 100% of the group heads under the department heads also turned over, leaving whole departments rudderless and gutting institutional knowledge.
Now, a year later, Judge Hidalgo still has not staunched the hemorrhaging. It’s continuing and perhaps worsening, raising costs for you, the taxpayer.
10 New Heads in One Year, More Possible
In the year since my last report:
- 10 department heads have turned over.
- 1 of those department heads lasted just weeks.
- 2 departments still have not announced new or interim leaders after long periods
- Commissioners Court is considering duplicating a department because the first is broken.
- 2 more heads are under pressure to leave
Here is a breakdown:
- Commissioners Court Analysts Office (Amber Weed replaced Katie Short)
- Commissioners Court Analysts Office (Will Janowski will reportedly replace Weed who lasted just weeks)
- Office of County Administration (Interim Head Diana Ramirez replaced David Berry)
- Economic Equity and Opportunity (Diana Ramirez replaced Pamela Chan)
- Economic Equity and Opportunity (New Interim Executive Director Estella Gonzalez replaced Diana Ramirez)
- Community Services (Interim Executive Director Thao Costis replaced Dr. Adrianne Holloway, to become the department’s sixth leader under Hidalgo.)
- Intergovernmental and Global Affairs (Department website still shows no replacement for Ender Reed who resigned in 2021.)
- Office of Justice and Safety (Ditto for Ana Yanez-Correa, who resigned in January 2023; no new leader announced yet.)
- Elections Administrator’s Office (Clifford Tatum replaced Isabel Longoria. Tatum may be replaced if SB1750 passes.)
- In the April 25 Commissioner’s Court meeting, Democrats proposed creating yet another county IT department dedicated to handling justice/law enforcement systems.
- One department head who shall remain nameless is under pressure to leave because of alleged sexual harassment and employee intimidation.
- Tatum is under fire in the legislature for botching the 2022 election.
But who’s keeping score?
Duplicating Rather Than Fixing a Department
In last year’s Brain Drain article, I detailed common factors that led to excessive employee turnover:
- A toxic work culture. In terms of predicting quitting, a toxic culture is ten times more important than compensation. High turnover signals that something is seriously wrong with management or the culture.
- The boss. According to multiple studies, most employees quit their boss, not the organization. Professionals want bosses who can teach them things and help them grow within their professions. Political appointees may not have that skill set.
- Negative assessments of the organization’s future and their own. Employees’ feelings about the future can predict attrition. No one wants to be the last to the lifeboats.
Perhaps nowhere are these problems more apparent than in Universal Services, the county’s IT department. Last year, the department’s JWEB system broke down and caused the release of dozens of prisoners. That happened under a new department leader with no IT experience.
Problems with the system have reportedly continued since then, causing frustrations to mount in the law enforcement community. As a result, the County is exploring creating a new department to do what Universal Services is already supposed to be doing. See item 297 on the 4/25/2023 commissioners court agenda.
But consider several problems with this proposal:
- There aren’t enough knowledgeable, qualified IT people to staff two departments.
- Universal Services would have to continue hosting the system, further fragmenting responsibility.
- Fragmentation of responsibilities undermines response time, which is the problem.
Most of these problems can be traced back to the replacement of a career professional by an unqualified political appointee. Qualified technical people then left in droves because of all the issues cited above.
I asked one person to describe how the turnover has affected system development and support. The source offered this description.
“There has been a lot of turnover in project management (PM), for instance. And, of course, there is a lag time while a new PM gets set up, learns the systems, and starts to become effective. In addition to that, PMs have to deal with tech staff turnover, since we keep losing developers and infrastructure people and positions. So, the new PM has to figure out how to find replacements from existing staff (and who to ask to find them), then negotiate to get them pulled away from other efforts to get on to their projects, and finally the PM gets tired of dealing with all of that in addition to hostile upper management and leaves for another department or another employer.”
As a result, no coding has yet been done on a highly needed justice IT system for 2.5 years. Worse yet, Universal Services reportedly hasn’t even locked down the system’s specs yet!
Property Appraisals Skyrocket with Increasing Costs
It’s not just county leaders and employees who suffer. You, the taxpayer, have to pay for:
- Excessive personnel turnover
- Higher recruitment costs
- Training of replacements
- Loss of institutional knowledge
- Costly rookie errors
- New employees figuring out where the toilet paper is
- Poorer service
- Reduced productivity
Without the ability to raise tax rates, where will money to pay for all that come from?
According to an analysis by O’Connor property tax consulting and appraisal services, Harris County is attempting to tax homeowners this year at 116.2% of the value of their properties.
The excess assessments could cost Harris County homeowners $1,365,000,000, according to O’Connor.
A Never-Ending Story
In Hidalgo’s first 3.25 years, Harris County had 36 new department heads. During the year since then, we’ve had 10 more. In addition:
- Four departments have leaders with “interim” in their titles.
- Two departments may have vacancies at the top.
- Two departments have leaders under pressure to leave.
That could soon push Hidalgo’s “turnover total” among department heads well past 50. And that will make it harder to recruit qualified talent.
This is what happens when you elect someone who’s never held a real job to become the CEO of a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/13/23
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