Community Builder Fellows - The Wrong Priority for the Times
Chairman Allard, Ranking Member Kerry, the distinguished Senator from Pennsylvania and other Members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the impact on permanent rank and file staff of the decision of my agency to hire approximately 500 to 600 community builder fellow and community builder specialist fellows (hereinafter referred to as CB). The fellows are 2 year term employees hired from outside the agency. For this opportunity to express my memberships' hurt , frustration as well as a profound sense of betrayal, I thank you. A short history of the evolution of the community builder position follows.
History of Their Evolution
It all began with the 1994 National Academy of Public Administrators report (NAPA) recommending the Department hire a cadre of officials with "community builder" skills to facilitate the flow of information on HUD programs to communities and political and civic leaders to better utilize resources. Under Secretary Cisneros' proposal, these individuals would be used to make sure no one "fell through the cracks" as part of his overall strategy to streamline and consolidate the programs HUD administers as well as to acquire missing expertise to address material weaknesses identified by the GAO and others. Ultimately, the shortages of staff and more importantly their realignment into needed areas would occur through attrition.
Under the Cisernos plan, everyone was responsible for customer service. He himself toured various locations and met with a wide array of industry groups and asked for their input into how to make HUD more responsive to the client and to the public. He encouraged, through a series of pilots including "model offices" for teams of employees to meet with communities and try to assist them in achieving their goals with respect to HUD programs. Under the Cisneros plan, at least the people with the knowledge met with the communities.
Under Secretary Cuomo, all this changed. A culture does not change overnight. Secretary Cisneros was attempting to disburse power into the very field offices doing virtually all the processing and client interaction. It was a bottoms up, orientation on the client and what works, strategy designed to get the employees out of following the often nonsensical directives issued by Headquarters which had spelled considerable problems in the past. Just as employees were beginning to believe they could make a difference, Secretary Cuomo consolidated all power and all decision making back in Headquarters. His elite cadre of CBs (as he frequently referred to them), who often knew little about the programs, were the only contact with the outside world and customer service.
Secretary Cuomo, as has already been reported by the Inspector General and others, accelerated staff changes and reductions while abandoning the necessary program consolidations that would have lead to the accomplishment of addressing both the staff imbalances as well as the staff reductions still being required by OMB and the White House. Given his reputation for not tolerating employees who questioned his decisions, vast numbers of knowledgeable professionals left. This has left the remaining managers, as the saying goes, more tractable and less able to invoke facts and knowledge as a challenge to the Secretary's plan. This was accomplished under the rubric of "Management Reform".
The Secretary then took the CBs, who were part of the plan under Cisneros to hire some outside (primarily fiscal) expertise HUD did not have and to address the interface with communities coping with the consolidation of programs and, in essence, made them a public relations force. The Secretary's plan originally called for a total of 440 CBs - 220 selected from the HUD career workforce and 220 fellows hired from outside. Today it stands well over 900 total. How was this increase accomplished while maintaining an FTE ceiling? Program staff, like those originally planned to be part of the Marketing & Outreach division in the Home Ownership Center (responsible for the Department's single family insurance programs), were continually cut and replaced with CB positions. While the Marketing & Outreach remained part of the HOC, it was later abolished altogether, so that the Secretary could reassign these functions to the CBers who were already under criticism for not having real jobs. The fact that dozens of employees, who applied and competed for the positions, were reassigned into other single family positions, like underwriting, that they were not provided the training to perform and who could not receive such training because of lack of funds (discussed later) was of no consequence. To add insult to injury, this now "reorganized" staff still had to accompany the CBs to all functions since they still knew nothing substantive about the programs. In addition, rather than directing any staff vacancies related to attrition to needed program support to address GAO and IG findings, virtually all of them became more CB fellow positions.
It is important to note that the Department now employs as many CBs as the entire housing staff for single family programs - HUD's largest program area. In this office alone, there are more CB staff than staff in CPD, Multifamily Housing (which is a HUB) or Public Housing. These offices have responsibility for billions in grants and loans to oversee. The question is can the only federal agency on the GAO's high risk list dedicate 10% of its staff resources to public relations/community outreach?
Morale - How Low Can You Go ?
Well, how would you feel? You have the Department engaged in a save the CB campaign with articles appearing in the local papers, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, which extols the CBs as being directed to go out in the communities and "Do good." Doesn't this imply at the very least you, a decades long employee with the Department, haven't done this? Combine that with the fact that you have no training money to learn the new tasks/functions you have been assigned , no travel money to adequately monitor your beneficiaries/recipients or even contractors, and that the CBers are getting you to make all substantive presentations, write all congressional correspondence, answer all their questions and they're making close to twice what you are, and is it any wonder that resentment runs deep? Quite frankly, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Many of these employees can work from home and participate in a number of family friendly initiatives which this Department has negotiated and signed with the union, but never implements, like telework. They have newer equipment, better equipment and larger work spaces, and even offices managers don't have. This despite their alleged duty to be out of the office and in the "field" assisting communities. We have CBs in this office that are only required to report to the office once a week - what bargaining unit employee has that kind of deal, regardless of their tasks? To top it all off, your Secretary constantly refers to his CBs as the his elite corp - and that makes the rest of us.... The fact that this has damaged morale was even cited back in a March 20, 1998 letter to the Secretary from Mortimer F. Coward, President, HUD Council of Locals:
First, employee morale is very low.....employees took umbrage at your statements that the [community builder] Program is needed so that HUD can attract the "best and brightest." They are also upset that while you draw analogies with the Peace Corps, these participants are not receiving Peace Corps-type stipends but instead are being paid much more than many of these employees. If, as you say, the commitment to public service is the highest service, then those who have already committed themselves to HUD think that they should receive some of the financial rewards HUD plans to bestow on those who work as community builders.
When I became President of the local, I changed its culture. I was out front telling people they had to learn new skills, especially computer skills, to survive. I told employees they were going on average to work at least twice as hard as they had in the past - and to prepare. As an office, our overall production in the HOC and other offices is second to none. I even wrote editorials and congressional correspondence stating we knew we had to change and we were up to the challenge, but it can't be done in a vacuum. When you have, as my Vice President does, to review 1,000 cases to forward 400 a month to the contractor, as but one of her duties, its galling to have to reply to a Congressional for the signature of a CB making twice as much as her with virtually no knowledge of HUD programs. Not to mention that with each attrition of staff, her workload climbs because staff is not replaced - just another CB fellow is hired.
Every employee here knows that the CB fellows have extremely limited knowledge of any one program of HUD's much less the broad expanse of programs, growing ever larger under this Secretary's care. Yet, there are numerous instances of CBs calling or attending meetings and causing later difficulties for regular employees. This was in part the result of an "edict" from Headquarters that only CBs could communicate with elected officials, the Secretary's constant reference to them as his elite corps, their astronomically higher pay, and their better working conditions than rank and file employees, including in many instances the career employees who took permanent CB positions. Indeed, while CB fellows were routinely brought on board at GS-14/15 positions (a significant number at step 10), the career CB staff did not receive any career ladder promotions for the first 2 years - meaning most of them remained GS-13s.
A case in point for promulgating misinformation, the problem has gotten so bad with respect to multifamily troubled projects that the Assistant Secretary for Housing, Director for the Enforcement Center and the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Field Policy and Management issued a joint memorandum dated September 2nd which recognized that:
It has come to our attention that in their effort to provide responsive customer service, Community Builders (CBs) in certain areas have misinterpreted or overstepped their role in dealing with HUD's identified troubled multifamily projects.
At no time is it proper for the Community Builder to schedule meetings, respond to or initiate contacts directly with an owner, owner's representative, owner's agent, the media, tenants, Members of Congress or their staffs, etc. regarding a troubled multifamily project without the explicit prior agreement of the Director of the Multifamily HUD/Program Center and , where the DEC (Enforcement Center) is involved, the DEC Satellite Office Director.
I have received comments from staffs not only in Multifamily, but essentially every division in HUD complaining about representations or misrepresentations of what is available from HUD and how they can correct problems. I have disguised the senders as most fear retaliation for speaking against what is clearly seen as a Secretarial priority.
The incident involving a CBer was the involvement with a civic group in southwest Pumpkin. The CBer had already met at least twice with this group before I and a coworker in another division were asked to attend a meeting with this group, involving a low income development. Unfortunately, the meeting started off by an introduction by the CBer saying that he had brought the experts, who will solve the groups problems! I was a little disturbed by the CBer holding meetings prior to our being invited. However, then to be referred to as an expert that can solve all their problems. Yea right!
The meeting concluded with the HUD "team" agreeing to meet the next morning to discuss possible options. Instead, what should greet the employees upon their arrival at the office but an e:mail from the CBer to the Secretary's Representative describing the meeting, outlining what issues the HUD team had discussed (he had not) and outlining specific tasks for each of us [regular staff] were supposed to complete and by when. In short he had both of us reporting to him.
No CB has the authority to assign work to employees other than other CBs. However, since the Secretary's Representatives rate the Directors on some of their EPPEs elements, there is a certain pressure not to complain too loudly. Another case in point:
A CBer informed a CDBG recipient to submit an Analysis of Impediments (AT) report. This despite the community having submitted a fair housing plan containing a component related to this which they had recently reported on, in the way of a progress report, to the Fair Housing division. When the employee in Fair Housing started receiving questions from the CDBG program contact as well as the community, the employee by way of response copied the CBer that this was a duplication of effort and they believed the information they sought could already be obtained without "bothering" the community.
The response - the Secretary's Representative sent a stinging letter to the employee's supervisor asking them why the office was getting involved in this matter? I can answer that. Because employees still care about customer service, even if the Department never recognized it as a priority or included it in employees EPPEs, the employees still cared.
CBers are supposed to set up a meeting for a consultation between the grantee and CPD. The purpose of a consultation is to discuss how the grantee is running their program and also offer any help in certain areas and talk about any issues they want to discuss. In the past the attendees were usually, the CPD Director, the CPD Representative, the Director from the community and the Mayor along with anyone else the locality wanted to invite. The CBer is now supposed to arrange for these meetings and attend. However, we had one CBer who e-mailed a date and time for the consultation to the CPD Director and CPD Rep and never verified if they were in fact available that day. Even though he did not hear from them, he went ahead with the consultation on his own.
I received a similar comment from a different office which stated that the combined salaries of the CBs who attended this employee's CDBG consultation meeting was larger than the grant given to the community!
Another example in my office was a LOCATOR developed by the CBs. The memo distributing it to HUD staff (to all employees in the office from Karen A. Miller, Secretary's Representative dated May 17, 1999) touted it as "a guide to housing assistance in Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware." Anyone receiving the guide, is given a list of CBers to call if they have any questions. Thousands of these guides were printed and, according to the Karen Miller memo, distributed to "social security offices, congressional offices, county assistance offices and other central locations where it's important to have access to information on housing." The problem is that it is grossly inaccurate according to an employee who kept such a list in order to assist them in providing better assistance to customers and beneficiaries of HUD's programs - an employee making half of what the average CB fellow makes.
I only have time to compare one locality, but for Adams County, the LOCATOR failed to list 8 additional assisted housing resources contained on my list:
FmHA developments Breckenridge Village, East Berlin Manor, Gettysburg Fahnestock, Littlestown Village, McIntosh Court, and New Oxford Manor. In addition, they failed to list McSherrystown Interfaith which is a HUD 202 project for the elderly. I am concerned that giving widespread circulation to what can at best be classified as an inaccurate document, under the banner that it is comprehensive, and having the same people who made the mistake answer the public's questions, will only lead to greater isolation and disenchantment from the groups HUD deals with. In short, harm, rather than improve customer service.
I wonder if this appeared on their web page as another accomplishment and first for the agency? A perfect example of where rank and file were doing it long before there were any CBs - and more importantly, doing it right. How does this correct the Department's existing deficiencies? Answer - it doesn't only adds to the negative balance.
Training - Or the Lack Thereof for Anyone Not a Fellow
I've gotten complaints from the Community Builders and Associate Community Builders that their job responsibilities have changed since the Community Fellows have come on board. It is my understanding that Secretary Cuomo had a Video-Conference for "Senior Community Builders and Community Fellows ONLY" on yesterday (11/23/98) and they were not to inform the Community Builders and Associate Community Builders that the Conference was taking place. It appears that the Secretary only wants the Community Fellows to deal with the public and all Community Builders and Associate Community Builders are to remain "unseen and unheard". Many of them are being relegated to being just Public Information and Public Affairs staff. To add insult to injury, none of the Associate Community Builders who are bargaining unit employees have been given the training as the Senior Community Builders and Community Fellows. It seems HUD is making quite an expensive investment in Term Employees who are only going to be here for 2 years. It would seem to me that the investment would [sic] be in those employees who are going to be here for the long haul.
Quoted from a local president in the Midwest.
We have had major problems for all our Internal CB's vs the external CB's, and issues with Associate CB's, here are the following.....Associate Community builders still doing extensive clerical work with no CB training. External CBs getting preferences over training....
Quoted from a local president in the New York/New Jersey region. A sentiment echoed by Tim Coward as well in his March 20th letter. "Second, the enormous financial resources that will be committed to training these short term employees would be better spent by training those who are your permanent employees. Most have not had six weeks of training during their entire tenure."
I myself was approached by one of the managers in the HOC and asked if the union could come up the money to pay for fundamentals of real estate training that is needed in the underwriting division, because there are no training funds available and the management official feels that this is essential for the staff, especially for the upward mobility and training positions that were created.
There have been numerous complaints from multifamily appraisers, who must take continuing legal education credits to remain licensed, the few beneficiaries of HUD's upward mobility and training positions - including welfare to work recipients, and rank and file staff that complain they are not being trained on new systems, updated procedures in the industry and elsewhere so that they can be efficient and effective. Because with dwindling numbers and the increased workload a booming economy has brought to the housing market in particular, their only chance at not burning out is to be as on top of the game as possible.
The allocation of these resources to term employees is particularly insulting to the rank and file when you look at what the Department spent the money training the CB fellows to do. The sessions titles of the Harvard training for the first 2 days follows:
1. Exercising Power
2. Working With the Media
3. Effective Implementation I: Relentlessness
4. Community Building: A Cognitive Map
5. Mobilizing People: I
6. Employment Challenges
7. Racial Issues in Residential & Business Location Decisions
8. Tuesday a Tour of the USS Constitution before dinner
The fact that the CBs may know absolutely nothing about HUD's programs, I guess wasn't important since there is nothing on the agenda which is HUD specific or of any real substantive value. It was similar for the 2 weeks they spent in the Virginia for which I have a syllabus. They spent 3 and half hours on media strategies and an hour on ethics. Maybe if they had spent more time on ethics they wouldn't have had to issue that September 2nd letter about troubled multifamily projects.
Millions of dollars wasted training term employees on touchy/feelly stuff and little on anything of substance - and at the expense of the rank and file employees who can't get essential training due to lack of funds. If this is the Secretary's idea of how to fix the problems at HUD, he is way off the mark. We need to fix production before we expand the sale force. Hiring a bunch of public relations people to keep up the appearance that all is well isn't enough. You have to invest in the people who have invested their careers and their futures in HUD. Because the bottom line is that we are the only ones who can turn this Department around and make it better and stronger. We are the ones who have dedicated our working lives, many for decades, in support of this agency. If you do not dedicate your resources first to us, the problems will not only not be solved, but inevitably grow worse.
Travel or Lack Thereof
In our office, the Secretary's Representative, concerned about multifamily being able to perform its functions is our office, gave up one of the cars allocated to the CBs so that multifamily housing would have a means to do site inspections, draw reviews, management reviews etc.., Multifamily housing has in the past been the biggest area of criticism for this department. Yet the agency strips it of any ability to assure compliance and head off waste and fraud. This is how the Secretary intends to strengthen the agency?
Of course, the best example is from the Chairman's home state of Colorado. Gary Mongelli, Regional Vice President for the Rocky Mountains region, told a tale at the last Partnership meeting of two CPD employees trying to conduct consultation meetings with their communities near Grand Junction and the community builder who is now supposed to be involved in the process. The two communities were handled by two different staff. However, in an effort to save travel dollars, both assignments were given to one of the staff for purposes of conducting these meetings, because the office didn't have sufficient funds to send both. The community builder was notified with the program office anticipating that the individual would accompany the staff person in the car. Much to the chagrin of the staff member who had to drive some 6 hours to attend the meeting, the community builder flew to the first meeting. At the end of which, the CB announced they had to get back, took a cab to the airport and flew home. The poor staff person stayed overnight at a local hotel, went the next day to the second meeting and drove home putting in a 16 hour day!
In California, I received complaints from a local president that GS-15 and 14 CB have been sent out on routine visits with staff to survey a fire damaged unit - Once to San Jose, once to Vallejo. He rightfully asks "Value added, or duplication of effort?" Another example of where we cannot afford to squander resources.
And The Department's Priority Is?
I asked in an editorial I wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer, what are the Department's priorities? The Secretary's actions and policies make it clear. On February 4th of this year, a message was circulated to the field offices concerning the Department's expenditures on Technology, in detailing a number of cuts from denial of video conferencing equipment, maintenance contracts and field assistance, the one repeated exception was "except for storefront locations." On a recent HUD Council of Locals 222 conference call, I heard other union officials were told there were drastic cutbacks in supplies, including paper, ink cartridges etc.. Whatever the Secretary's priority, I can say from the employee's perspective it clearly isn't enabling them to do a better job, be more responsive to customers, or addressing the shortfalls in skills and staffing levels in order to correct pass problems as noted by both the GAO and IG. It is a cruel slap in the face to the employees working their hardest with computer programs that don't work, escalating work loads due to both the economy and staff attrition, and the almost daily change in direction mandated by Headquarters, that the CB fellows are treated like royalty and lauded by the Secretary as the "best and brightest".
Post Budgetary Actions
I have filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging several prohibited personnel practices in the initial hiring of the fellows. However, what happened after the budget committee essentially mandated the termination of the CB fellows was truly the best exercise in spin doctoring I had ever witnessed. First, on October 14th, several days before the Secretary made any mention to rank and file staff concerning the number and competition for the community builder fellow "slots", Patricia Enright, who was then Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and a long time Cuomo aide, sent out a message addressed to the Schedule C appointees and CBs fellows ONLY which read as follows:
Today the conference committee released its report and the language for the VA/HUD appropriations bill. The bill and report language fund the Community Builder Fellowship through September 1, 2000. After September 1, Congress has legislated that the Community Builder "Fellowship" positions be eliminated and integrated into career civil service positions. [Didn't the language specifically bar conversion? It certainly didn't say anything about integration. Interesting spin on what really happened.]
Congress also mandates that as these new positions become part of the career civil service system, these slots must be filled through the competitive hiring process (not schedule A competition as used for term employees). In the conference committee's report language, Congress specifically mandates that current fellows can not automatically be converted to career civil services and must compete in a hiring process where fellows do not receive any special preference or priority "simply because of their current status." [ I didn't see "automatically" anywhere in the report language, nor did I see the language she quotes - more interesting tell tail signs of the Department's real intent.]
The Department has begun the process of identifying options for implementing Congress' decision to transfer employee slots currently utilized for the fellowship into the civil service system. [Another parallel that looks suspiciously like conversion to me.] We understand what a difficult time this has been for you. [Why would that be if the first class was going to graduate on the termination date and supposedly leave federal service anyway?] As the Deputy Secretary reviews options for this process and get a better sense of the timelines and what this means, we will continue to keep you informed as best we can.
This was followed by two messages to all HUD employees 3 days apart which drew clear and convincing parallels between the 400 CB fellow positions be terminated by Congress, and the new 400 CB permanent slots to be advertised. Of course, there was no mention to career employees or others any other potential applicants the series of communications through conference calls and other media which occurred between Headquarters and the CB fellows on the nature of the jobs, where they were etc.., that I was able to document as a result of several copies of messages I received from other union officials.
I have been privy to an e-mail from Mary Lou Crane [Secretary's Representative in Boston] to the community builders. In it she notes that there will be a teleconference with the Secretary on Monday morning. Cuomo, amongst other things, will address the permanent community builder positions.
Mary Lou will have a meeting with her Community Builders on Monday afternoon to discuss, amongst other things the advertisements for the positions.
It would appear from this that the leadership in HUD is wasting no time in attempting to make the Community Builders permanent.
The ability of the Secretary to "strongly encourage" his staff and others to do his bidding, would foretell that all or most of the existing builders would be selected for their present positions no matter how the advertisements are written.
A former President of the New England local. Or from New York,
I want to let everyone know what the Management in New York is conveying to our Community Builders. Last week the NY Sec Rep, Allison Lee met with all the Community Builders Staff conveying to them that the number of Community Builder vacancies were being scaled down drastically. She said that originally the number of vacancies were to meet the number of external CBers. (emphasis added) But since all the political turmoil surrounding the Community Builders, the Secretary has decided to eliminate many vacancies. She then stated that Public Trust Officer [originally designed to promote existing staff and recognize their expertise] vacancies which were being held up before will now start being posted and that many would be posted for all qualified persons, which means the external CBers can apply.
This is an outrage. And its even more blatant now than ever before, that the Secretary will do what he can to make sure that our employees who have served this agency for years will once again lose opportunity to better themselves.
If you notice, this has already started. A posting for Public Housing Revitalization Specialist GS 13/14/15 has been posted for all qualified persons across the country. In addition, there was one posted(sic) for internals also. So in other words, if you're not a manager cronie or a political cronie, you don't(sic) stand a chance.
I too noted two positions advertised for outside at GS14/15 which failed to comply with OPM requirements. I guess if the Secretary can't have it one way he'll attempt to do it another. My biggest complaint - it comes at the expense of dedicated public servants and a weakened agency that is ill served by these actions.
We are on the wrong course. We agree with our sister local 3258 representing New England who testified before the House Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources on October 26, 1999. Instead of shifting resources to address the real problems identified by the GAO and others, we have hired an ever growing number of public relations experts at the expense of the employees entrusted with managing literally billions of dollars in federal grants and obligations. Having promised to train career staff in the skills they will need the for the 21st Century, the Secretary has sent the CBs to Harvard to learn media strategies. In the meantime, management is asking the union for money for essential training for the career staff that will inevitably have to clean up the mess.
This is not how we make the Department stronger and correct the problems that have been documented . We need more program staff, not public affairs experts. I ask you on behalf of my membership and a number of other local presidents across the county, eliminate these positions and mandate that the Department redirect its resources to strengthening program staff positions. We need you to mandate responsible management of our Department having given up any chance of achieving it short of legislation.
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