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Castro aims to improve HUD’s IT environment

Secretary Julian Castro, Department of Housing and Urban Development

The federal pay feels middling. The computer tools employees use date back decades in some cases. The headquarters building, a weird-looking concrete relic of 1960s modernism, regularly receives a place on lists of the ugliest structures in Washington. You cross a barren plaza of concrete to gain entrance. And its employees rank it the lowest among large federal agencies as a place to work.

So why does anyone stay at Housing and Urban Development?

Secretary Julian Castro said he thinks the mission — providing housing opportunities to the impoverished — keeps people at HUD for 15, 25, or 30 years.

As Castro marks HUD’s 50th anniversary as a cabinet-level department, he told Federal Drive with Tom Temin in an exclusive interview he wants to make HUD a good place to work.

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“My job I see as, how do we support [the mission] and support our employees so that they can do a better job?” Castro said. “And that means being very concerned about our workplace conditions, how engaged our employees are, giving them a good scope of responsibility in their own job. We’ll be very focused on those things.”

One way is by revving up Switchboard, an online suggestion and complaint bulletin board both for internal and external use. Castro pledged to speed answers to employees about whether their ideas are feasible, and if they are, when management would likely implement the idea. Castro said Switchboard has produced hundreds of employee suggestions in the last couple of years.

Castro said he’s also committed, in the time he has left before expiration of the Obama administration, to improve HUD’s IT environment and the tools it provides employees for monitoring program and financial performance.

Federal Drive host Tom Temin, right, poses for a photo with HUD Secretary Julian Castro.
Federal Drive host Tom Temin, right, poses for a photo with HUD Secretary Julian Castro.

“We’re in the middle of two systems changes, one called New Core and one called HEAT,” he said, referring to an effort to modernize HUD’s core financial management system (New Core), and to the HUD Enterprise and Architecture Transformation, a multi-part effort to establish cloud computing and desktop virtualization for HUD’s 13,000 users.

“One of the biggest headwinds we face is that we have very old technology,” Castro said. “Makes it difficult to track finances as quickly or accurately as we would like.”

Looking outward, Castro pointed to how HUD has started providing more training programs to the more than 3,000 local housing authorities that deliver its programs. HUD has been plagued with high levels of improper programs. Many of the lost dollars flow through programs such as rental housing assistance.

“We got funded to create a program to better train the boards of housing authorities out there,” Castro said. “Often times you get a mixed bag in terms of capacity of the boards.” Now HUD has an online training tool to help boards better understand their fiduciary responsibilities as HUD grantees and the need to avoid conflicts of interest.

As for the HUD mission itself, Castro explained how the department is expanding its idea of merely providing housing to the needy to teaming with other agencies to improve aging or down-at-the-heels communities as a whole. The Choice Neighborhoods program, for example, “is basically investing in old public housing and reimagining it as fixed income, not just the housing but also retail opportunities, concern for the quality of schools in the area and access to transportation,” he said.

“The common theme here is that we’re looking at these things in a holistic way,” Castro added.

That means updating the HUDStat program, started under Castro’s predecessor, Shawn Donovan, now the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Castro said HUDstat will continue to measure things like housing units created per federal dollar, but now adding elements related to what he calls HUD’s opportunity agenda.

Castro puts it this way: “How well are we doing to help ensure more of the folks in public housing are able to get their GED or graduate from high school or go on to a technical training program or community college or university. I’m trying to get us better about measuring the ultimate life outcome that moves one to ultimate self-sufficiency or prosperity.”

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