Editorial: “Chaos” in Harris County Government
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about the brain drain at the highest levels in Harris County government, and its impact on productivity and service delivery. Sixteen departments have had a total of 34 leaders under Lina Hidalgo.
Since then, dozens of people have contacted me describing the impact of turnover on programs and service.
One manager used the word “chaos” to describe the environment since Lina Hidalgo took office. All of the sources for this post have requested anonymity because they fear reprisals – a chilling comment in itself.
No doubt, many good, talented, hard-working people remain in Harris County government, but the problems described below make it harder for them to do their jobs.
Unexplained Changes in Direction
One person told me about a new Harris County juvenile center that was being planned, due to overcrowding and substandard living conditions at the old center. Then one day, “…like out of nowhere, we got a sense that the whole project was canceled. We tried to explain how far along the project was and why it was necessary. And they didn’t care. It was just like, ‘Well, we [the judge’s office] are not going in that direction.’” The source added, “We had a lot of things in motion that just came to a halt.”
The new center never did get built. It had reportedly gone all the way through the design phase, so the unexplained cancellation was costly.
Not So Resilient Resiliency Plan
Another person mentioned a county-wide resiliency plan. The heads of multiple Harris County departments had worked on it for months. At the eleventh hour, people in Hidalgo’s office with no experience rewrote everything that people with experience had developed. “It just changed completely,” said one person involved.
Transportation Plan Stalled
Yet another person told me, “In Hidalgo’s mind, if you’re building a road, you’re doing taxpayers a disservice. Philosophically, she’s into multi-modal transportation. But a lot of times, she misses the point that the county is only allowed to do what the state of Texas allows it to do. That’s where they’ve had more problems. Their thought process a lot of times was, ‘Well, if they want to sue us for that, then they can.’ We’ve seen that play out several times.”
Other sources told me about progress on various components of Harris County’s Transportation Plan.
- There has also been little to no movement on the county’s Multimodal, Major Thoroughfare plan to improve connectivity.
- The Equity Study has stalled. So has a framework to implement it. There has been no movement on equity in transportation.
- Likewise, there has been little to no movement on Vision Zero, the county’s effort to eliminate traffic fatalities.
- Nothing notable has happened lately on Low Impact Development, Green Infrastructure, or other environmentally-friendly projects.
Lack of Clarity, Direction
Another major problem contributing to the chaotic work environment: lack of clarity and direction. One mid-level manager told me, “We would often be moving in a direction when everything kind of went on pause because we were waiting to see which direction to go. But we couldn’t ever narrow down a direction. It felt as if, in every single Commissioners Court meeting, we spent all day watching mommy and daddy fight. Even among the Democrats.”
Lack of Attention to Operational Details
Former managers of various Harris County departments also complained about lack of attention to operational details.
“Ellis’ office and the Judge’s office would work together to develop these big picture concepts of where we were going. But it was never clear how we would get there,” said one person.
“We’d sit there and go, ‘Well, that’s great. But you didn’t set up any funding for it. For example, we talked about big sweeping programs like MWBE – the Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprise program. That was four years ago and it’s still not off the ground.”
Hiring People Without Relevant Experience
They hired Pamela Chan to set up the new Harris County Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity. According to one person I talked to, Chan was a “a great academic,” but had no real-world, operational MWBE experience. Another said, “the guidance and support that Chan got was like almost nil and then she’d get beat up at court.” She soon left. That department has had two executive directors in a little more than a year.
Universal Services, the County’s information technology (IT) department, has the same problem. Its leader, Major General Rick Noriega has no IT background. Think what would happen if you put a computer programmer with no military experience in charge of a tank battalion. You’d probably have a high casualty rate. And that’s exactly what happened in Universal Services.
100% of Group Heads Leave Within 17 Months
According to many of his employees, Noriega’s lack of IT understanding contributed to high turnover beneath him at multiple levels. And that rapidly compromised the integrity of systems.
Noriega also pushed out people with excellent professional credentials and replaced them with political appointees in many cases.
Not long after Noriega took over the department, he lost his Chief Administrative Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Technology Officer, and Chief of Cybersecurity (twice).
So many employees have left that the department doesn’t even put names on org charts anymore.
Incomprehensible Org Chart Without Names Revised More than 30 Times
In fact, the department doesn’t even call organization charts ‘org charts’ anymore. It refers to them as its “ecosystem.” See below.
At this point, the chart above has reportedly gone through more than 30 revisions under Noriega. Yet multiple sources told me, “No one understands it.”
Toxic Work Environment Accelerates Already High Turnover
The work environment in Universal Services has become so toxic according to sources that approximately one third of the department has left in 17 months and the rate of attrition is reportedly accelerating.
Universal Services org charts updated the day before Commissioners Court appointed Noriega the permanent department head show everyone who left since his arrival. The source told me that some positions have turned over more than once. So this 12-page chart understates the numbers involved. It shows that at least 134 people have left since Noriega assumed command. That’s out of approximately 400 to 450 total employees. The highlighted names represent people who left the organization in the last 17 months.
One third of a workforce turning over would not be surprising in fast food. But these are professional jobs with highly skilled people doing complex work that few understand.
Most employers, especially in government, try to hold attrition to 10% or less. High turnover disrupts service. It also costs time and money. This survey found that replacing workers costs an average of 33% of their yearly salaries.
If that percentage holds true in IT, losing one third of your workforce would cost one third of your payroll.
Some damage has been self-inflicted. While most IT companies let employees work remotely, Noriega forces managers to come into the office. This policy goes against the industry norm and has reportedly contributed to several of the departures at the managerial level.
One former IT employee told me Universal Services has refilled so many positions with inexperienced people that “They can’t even support the simple stuff. It’s scary.” This person called the replacements “Garcia’s puppets.”
Commissioner Adrian Garcia recommended Noriega for the job. Another Garcia loyalist, James Henderson, is Universal Services new Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer. They have reportedly replaced many departing employees with people loyal to Garcia.
Can It Be Saved?
When the department’s crucial JWEB program went down recently, IT staff reportedly worked 8 hours on and 4 hours off around the clock trying to restore the system. But they couldn’t get it back up. So, hundreds of criminal suspects didn’t receive probable cause hearings in time and had to be released.
A former manager in the department told me, “I don’t think enough meat is left on the bone to fix what’s going on there.”
Harris County’s annual budget next year will exceed $3.5 billion. We’re one third of the way through a $5 billion flood bond. And these are the custodians of our tax dollars.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/1/2022
1706 Days since Hurricane Harvey
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