Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general has a long list of concerns

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When you’re inspector general for a federal department, there’s never a shortage of work. A case in point is the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has some long-standing issues in areas like Information Technology and hiring. HUD Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin in the studio for more details.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Davis, good to have you in.

Rae Oliver Davis: Good morning, thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: And everything begins with the people in an agency. And so everything related to people begins with who you hire. And you took a deep dive look at some of the issues in hiring and the practices at HUD. Tell us what you are specifically looking at and then we’ll get into some of the findings.

Rae Oliver Davis: Well, as you said, people are crucial to the success of HUDs mission. So we looked at just that – how quickly how effectively, efficiently HUD could onboard the staff that they need. Specifically, we looked at a metric we call “time to hire.” That metric comes from OPM, or the Office of Personnel Management. Back in 2017 they put together basically a roadmap for hiring. They started with workplace planning, they looked all the way through onboarding of employees, and then they pushed out a model to the entire federal government. The agencies look at this roadmap, and they look for ways to improve their own process, right. And the model was 80 days – 80 days from beginning to end. We found that HUD set a goal for themselves back in 2019, for roughly 108 days. We found they did not make that goal. They made hires roughly averaging 141 days.

Tom Temin: Because that 80 days goal actually goes back several administrations. I remember back in around 2000, it was either late in the Bush administration, or early in the Obama – I forget which one now where there was a concerted effort to try to change that. And so I always loved the 80 days, based on the movie “Around the World in 80 Days,” or H.G. Wells story “Around the World and 80 Days.” So what happened? I mean, why could they not speed this whole thing up?

Rae Oliver Davis: Well, we found many opportunities for improvement here. And I think it really boils down to people process and data, starting with people, people need appropriate training. You know, we found that many of HUD’s hiring managers didn’t understand the process thoroughly and didn’t understand their role thoroughly. And they said they hadn’t been trained. So we made recommendations that HUD really just improved their training of their people with respect to the to the process –

Tom Temin: Because the process, just to interrupt a moment, does offer a lot of flexibility and a lot of choices, a lot of hiring authorities, most of which agencies never even are aware of much less use.

Rae Oliver Davis: Well, that’s a very good point. We did look at how often they use hiring authorities, we actually found a best practice within HUD with respect to special hiring authorities. You know, I think it’s important in our work to point out opportunities of improvement, but also talk about the success stories. And to your point, there is a success story within HUD. With respect to special hiring authorities, their office of field policy was a great success story. Not only do we offer opportunities for improvement, we try to point out best practices. So to your point about special hiring authorities HUDs Office of Field Policy and Management (OFPM) they used special hiring authorities back in FY 2019. And they were the one office in HUD that reduced their time to hire while still increasing their hires. They use special hiring authorities that benefit veterans that benefit people with disabilities. So you know, this is really a nice thing to be able to also highlight this best practice within the department.

Tom Temin: Alright, so there’s the people is one of the three issues, and the training, there is something that then I guess the HR function could do to help the hiring managers.

Rae Oliver Davis: Yes, OCHCO, the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer would primarily be responsible for that training, yes.

Tom Temin: All right. And what was the second impediment to getting this thing shrunken?

Rae Oliver Davis: Well, looking at process, we talked about standardization or a lack of standardization. What we mean by that is, it’s possible to standardize parts of the hiring process just make it easier for managers. You know, for instance, there are basic job descriptions, we suggested they put together a library of job descriptions that keep hiring managers from having to reinvent the wheel every time. You know, someone may want to hire, say, a budget officer, and a budget officer’s skill set that they need in one area of the department is likely to be the same in another. So rather than taking the lengthy time of drawing up that job description, you just have that available to the hiring managers, and it’s there.

Tom Temin: Alright, and then the third element was?

Rae Oliver Davis: Data. So in the IG community, we say good data makes for good decisions. We did find that there were areas for improvement in HUD’s data around hiring. For instance, they didn’t have consistent data, they didn’t have reliable data. There are some instances they are relying on a manual process to keep track of their hiring. They literally put their hiring data on a spreadsheet, and then the OCHCO, or chief human capital officer pushes that information out throughout the department and they make decisions based on that. Well, we know a manual process has flaws. It’s time consumming, and we humans are writing things down manually, we make mistakes. So we suggested they improve that and they go to an automated process.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Rae Oliver Davis, she’s inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And did they generally take well, to those suggestions, HUD management?

Rae Oliver Davis: Yes, I’m happy to report they have agreed with all 11 of our recommendations. And they’ve already told us about 12 different action plans they have in place to achieve this. They’re going to go to automated systems, they’re considering training, they’re getting some data analytics tools, you know, and it’s also something that Secretary [Marcia] Fudge is very focused on. She testified earlier this summer in front of Senate appropriations, and she flagged this problem and her commitment to it then. So we’re looking forward to seeing what they do.

Tom Temin: And I guess as an aside, it’s worth noting that one of the characteristics of HUD over the years has been that a lot of people go there and stay the entire federal career at HUD, because many are motivated by the mission of housing. And so you find that there’s not always that much turnover in different areas. So how has turnover and retention been lately?

Rae Oliver Davis: Well, if you look at HUD’s current budget request, they flagged that between 2010 and 2019, they had a roughly 22% decline in full-time employees. And you know, they flagged for the hill that that affects them greatly. It affects their ability to monitor with compliance, it affects their ability to address systemic issues, it affects their ability to be innovative, and you know, looking at this time to hire metric, you know, you’re really almost looking at capacity. And if you look at HUD over the last few years, their staffing levels, again, have decreased, but their program responsibilities and their federal funding has greatly increased. And if you look at something like just disaster relief alone, which is always a priority for my office, the supplemental funding that’s come out recently, following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, they got the $35.4 billion in mitigation unmet need funds, facing COVID. They received $23 billion in the CARES Act, and then the American Rescue Plan. So with that kind of influx of funds, it’s crucial you have the right staff at the right time.

Tom Temin: You need the right staff, and you need sufficient staff, because there is just a sheer capacity issue that agencies like HUD, Small Business Administration have the same issue. You just need bodies in place that know what they’re doing to handle all of that

Rae Oliver Davis: You do. And you need the right skill sets, right? And that is another thing that we looked at, as we looked at the quality of the hires that had was making and we found that’s an area that HUD could study a bit more to make sure they’re getting the right fit for the right position. We did our own survey as part of this work. And we had quite a few of the hiring managers say they were dissatisfied with the untimeliness of the process. And they said it had an impact on their hiring, they said they weren’t necessarily happy with the quality of the candidates. When that happens. We see hiring managers repost positions. Often that just drags the process out much further. But Tom, I will say the flip side of that which I also learned when we did this work is often you will have a highly sought after candidate who goes and takes another job because you could not make the offer fast enough. So we’re hoping these recommendations really help HUD with their hiring process.

Tom Temin: Given the frustration of the hiring managers, this sounds like one of those cases when the inspector general staff came by – people might have been happy to spill the beans because they want to fix this problem.

Rae Oliver Davis: I think this is something everyone’s focused on. And, I should say it’s not just HUD this is a governmentwide issue. And this was part of the top management challenges report that we do every year. But if you look to CIGIE, the Council of IGs for Integrity and Efficiency, they earlier this year, they did their own top management challenges of looking at things that are facing all of government. And that report found that about two thirds of my colleagues feel that human capital management is a challenge for their respective agencies that they are overseeing.

Tom Temin: Sure. And you are a couple of years now into the job. So are you involved with CIGIE, too? I mean –

Rae Oliver Davis: I am.

Tom Temin: Technically everyone is on CIGIE that’s an inspector general, but what’s your focus there?

Rae Oliver Davis: Well, that’s correct. But I do serve on the Executive Council. I’m the chair of the professional development committee. So we do training for IG staff. We offer leadership training, we offer mentoring and coaching for IG community staff. It’s a great position. It’s a really fun committee actually.

Tom Temin: And getting back to HUD, what are your IG priorities for the coming fiscal year?

Rae Oliver Davis: Safety of residents living in HUD-assisted housing is always going to be a priority for me and my staff. We recently conducted an audit of HUDs process for handling health and safety complaints in multifamily housing. Multifamily is just multiple units. It can be apartments, it can be housing for seniors, housing for people with disabilities, but we came to some pretty significant findings in that audit. We determined that life threatening complaints things like gas leaks, exposed wires, missing smoke detectors, while they should take 24 hours for a property to resolve, many times the HUD properties that we reviewed took an average of 2.5 days to get to those complaints. We looked at other complaints, things that we would all consider nonlife threatening, but important – things like leaky faucets, cracked windows, even mold – and we thought that should take based on our benchmarking about three days for them to resolve. And it took an average of 17 days in those properties. So that’s a significant priority for us that we will continue. We found that HUD didn’t really have an established timeframe for resolving those complaints. Sometimes employees were monitoring these complaints via email, again, without an automated system. And HUD contractors just weren’t held accountable. They actually didn’t have a timeframe that they had to report on this.

Tom Temin: I was going to say, we should point out that it’s not HUD that fixes the problems or operates the housing, but it is through grants to private owners and operators.

Rae Oliver Davis: And again, this was us doing a review of HUD’s oversight of those issues.

Tom Temin: Got it. Any other priorities that people should be on their toes about that they’ll be coming around to talk?

Rae Oliver Davis: Pandemic-related oversight, of course, is going to be a priority for us. And right now, we’re looking at all the grantees that received pandemic relief, and we’re sending out surveys to them to find out what their challenges are in spending this because we think it’s super important that these funds get to the American people who need them. So that’s one area. A new area for us is going to be fair housing. And we’re going to look at dedicating staff to examine HUD’s effort to eliminate discrimination and fair housing, we already have one audit underway. And in that respect, we’re looking at HUD’s intake process for housing discrimination complaints, because if a complaint comes in about housing discrimination, and actually does not come to HUD [Office of Inspector General] it goes to HUD directly. So we’re going to look at how they handle those complaints. How do they decide when to open a case? Are they spotting trends? And we think this is very, very important work right now.

Tom Temin: And you’ll probably look to see if they have a 10 million case backlog in that area, which then makes it pretty hard to get to all the cases in a timely way.

Rae Oliver Davis: That’s a very good point. Capacity should likely be a part of our review in that and we’ll take that into consideration.

Tom Temin: All right, no charge. Rae Oliver Davis is inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Thanks so much for joining me.

Rae Oliver Davis: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about our work. I appreciate it.

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