HCFCD org chart 5/15/23

Flood Control, Other Harris County Departments Reorganized…Again

Almost all Harris County departments have reorganized several times under County Judge Lina Hidalgo. By my estimate, the County’s 24 departments have had a total of 47 leaders during her administration.

Revolving Door for Department Heads

Eleven leaders have turned over in the last year including five in the last month. The:

  • Office of the County Administrator has a new interim Executive Director.
  • Economic Equity and Opportunity Office has a new interim Executive Director.
  • Commissioners Court Analysts’ Office has had two interim Executive Directors in a matter of weeks.
  • Universal Services Department has a new interim Executive Director (effective 5/16/23).

All those “interims” hint at more changes to come. But the changes go even further down several organizational ladders.

Deeper Changes Affect Whole Departments

The new interim leader at Universal Services, Sindhu Menon, began making organizational changes one day after her appointment two days ago. The full scope has yet to be seen. So far, she has reportedly addressed some departmental cultural changes and instituted an open door policy, which employees say is a refreshing change from her predecessor.

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) also announced changes this week on 5/15/23. But the District’s head did not change. HCFCD changes are more structural than cultural.

Let’s dive into HCFCD’s latest reorg, look at how three previous reorgs under Hidalgo have affected operations, and then look at academic research on the impact of frequent reorganizations.

Latest Reorganization at Flood Control

County Commissioners appointed Dr. Tina Petersen, Executive Director of HCFCD, in January 2022. She is the department’s fourth leader under Hidalgo since Russ Poppe resigned in July 2021, less than 2 years ago. Peterson has reportedly been working on her department’s reorganization for approximately the last year.

Dr. Petersen says her goals include:

  • Enhancing operations
  • Reaffirming a commitment to administrative excellence
  • Efficient project delivery
  • Robust maintenance of infrastructure
  • Building dynamic partnerships. 

Dr. Petersen did not respond to a question about whether the recent, dramatic drop in HCFCD spending had anything to do with the timing of her reorganization. However, all of the announced goals seem generally designed to counter the downward trend below on the right.

HCFCD Spending by Year since 2000
Source: FOIA Requests to HCFCD.

After a steady increase following the passage of the flood bond in 2018, spending is now down to approximately the 2017 level (assuming Q1 rates hold). The decrease corresponds to the department’s frequent leadership changes.

HCFCD issued the new organizational chart below this week. It is designed to accomplish Dr. Petersen’s goals, which don’t specifically include speed.

HCFCD org chart 5/15/23
For a printable high-res PDF, click here.

The new org chart shows:

  • The creation of several new positions at the “chief” level
  • A curious multi-level relationship between the chiefs
  • Multiple open positions
  • A reshuffling of responsibilities under the chiefs
  • “Demotions” for many departments caused by one and sometimes two additional layers of management inserted between Petersen and people actually doing the work.

Extra layers of management have the potential to slow things down even more rather than speed them up.

Changes Compared to Previous Structure

For instance, Communications used to report to the Chief of Staff and then Dr. Petersen. Now, it reports to a Public Information Officer and an External Affairs division head before the Chief of Staff. See org chart above in the second column from the left.

HCFCD issued no public announcement explaining the changes. So, without a previous org chart, it’s hard to tell exactly what changed unless you are familiar with certain departments (as I was with communications).

The demotion of Communications is regrettable in my opinion. Communications have already slowed and this will slow them further. Consider two examples: flood-bond and website updates.

  • Already HCFCD has abandoned monthly flood-bond spending updates in favor of twice-yearly.
  • Many of the District’s web pages refer to upcoming meetings that happened years ago!
  • “Active Projects” have not been updated on the District’s website in five months, even though many projects have changed.
May 18th screen capture still shows active projects from January.

But the challenges don’t stop there.

Political Interference Has Slowed Flood-Risk Reduction

Irrespective of Dr. Petersen’s talents, she has little ability to control changing priorities above her pay grade. Consider these two examples.

Five items on the 5/16/23 Commissioners Court Agenda (256, 259, 260, 263 and 264) involved $250 million in grants for sediment removal awarded nearly 2 years ago. The projects were just approved THIS week.

A quarter billion dollars has been parked on the sidelines for almost two years.

Certainly, finalizing construction plans and bidding the jobs consumed part of that time. The reorg might help with those things.

But according to three sources who asked to remain anonymous, political interference from commissioners also delayed the projects. Certain commissioners reportedly didn’t think enough of the FEMA money was being spent in their precincts.

Then there’s the $750 million in HUD/GLO Harvey mitigation funds awarded to Harris County – also two years ago. Instead of asking Flood Control how it recommended spending the money, Commissioners gave that task to the Community Services Department (CSD) which still hasn’t developed a definitive list of projects. Perhaps that’s because CSD has had six changes of leadership under Hidalgo. But CSD did cut HCFCD’s share of the pie by almost a quarter billion dollars.

The parked FEMA and HUD funds represented chances for Hidalgo to reduce flood risk by a $1 billion.

And let’s not forget the annual changes of priorities in the County’s Equity Prioritization Framework that force HCFCD staff to constantly re-evaluate more than a hundred projects.

Common Pitfalls of Reorganizations in General

Many valid reasons exist to reorganize. Likewise, reorganizations also entail many pitfalls.

Frequent reorgs can wreak havoc on an organization’s productivity by demoralizing employees.

A McKinsey survey in the Harvard Business Review (Getting Reorgs Right) found that:

  • 80% of reorgs fail to deliver the hoped-for value in the time planned
  • 10% cause real damage
  • Reorgs—and the uncertainty they provoke—can cause greater stress and anxiety than layoffs
  • In about 60% of cases, reorgs reduce productivity for a period of time.

An article in Forbes, titled “Curse of the Reorg,” details some of reasons why. It claims, “When companies announce a ‘reorg,’ internal reactions often skew more concerned than excited.”

Forbes continues, “Employees may not perceive this news as a positive change when they’re consumed by questions like: Another reorg, really? What will happen to my job? How will my team change? Will the projects I’ve been working on for months (even years) go away?”

Another article, on LinkedIn, documented how productivity dropped 50% after a reorg because of issues like those above.

Many academic articles suggest that it takes six to nine months to get past the productivity dips associated with reorganizations. One can only wonder whether the leadership changes and reorganizations throughout Harris County are happening faster than productivity can recover from them.

Only commissioners have the power to fix this problem. But service delivery doesn’t seem to be the highest priority of many of them.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/18/2023

2088 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.