Tag Archive for: Universal Services

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.

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). 

The department also lost 100% of its group directors beneath them and approximately one third of its employees in 17 months. 

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.

Harris County Universal Services Ecosystem Chart, Revision #25. For a high resolution, full-size PDF click here.

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.

Noriega reportedly tried to dismiss the turnover. But significantly, 100% of his group directors left, leaving much of the department rudderless, especially since Noriega did not have an IT background himself.

Page 2 of 12-page Harris County Universal Services Org Chart as of 9/21/22. Highlighted group directors have left. To see turnover at lower levels, click here.

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. 

Self-Inflicted Damage

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. 

“It’s Scary.”

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

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.