An Hour with the Secretary

Quarterly Town Hall Meetings Address Key Challenges Facing the Federal Housing Agency

Last week we discussed an innovative internal comment board at the Department of Housing and Urban Development that highlights work being done by employees across the country. This week HUD agreed to let CAP’s Doing What Works project sit in on its quarterly agencywide town hall meeting broadcasted from Atlanta.

Every leader knows the importance of communication with staff. Leaders get told that “people are your greatest asset” and for many organizations, it’s true. But how should leaders make sure they are connected with their staff? This is difficult in any organization, but especially so in a large federal agency with offices across the country.

To address these challenges, the Department of Housing and Urban Development holds quarterly town hall meetings available via online video to its more than 9,000 employees across the country. The most recent town hall was held this week at the Atlanta field office.

There, longtime HUD employee Jerry Brown interviewed Secretary Shaun Donovan for more than an hour, moderating tough questions that were on the minds of HUD employees. The secretary also fielded questions from Atlanta employees.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., hundreds of HUD employees could see the interview on a giant screen and could ask their own questions through a video conference. And staff in the other 80 field offices throughout the country watched live and were encouraged to submit questions by email, which were also put to the secretary.

The idea of having a candid discussion with more than 9,000 employees seems paradoxical. But that is exactly what Secretary Donovan managed to do at this week’s town hall meeting.

“What effect did the budget agreement have on HUD? Will we be going through this again?” asked one employee.

“What can be done to assist Native American groups?” asked another. “How can HUD improve sustainability of residents who have to move from traditional public housing to housing of their choice?” asked another employee.

This was an opportunity for HUD’s employees to ask Secretary Donovan questions about anything they wanted. He answered an assortment of questions from the federal budget to job training and performance evaluation.

The secretary’s answers—like his employees’ questions—were candid.

“Veterans are 50 percent more likely to be homeless than the average American. That just isn’t right,” said Donovan in response to an Atlanta employee who was a veteran herself. Then he took a moment to reinforce to the employee that the agency was committed to following through on the president’s goal of ending veterans’ homelessness by 2015.

Many federal leaders prioritize accountability to their stakeholders—such as interest groups and Congress. But being visible and accountable to staff is equally important. Events like the HUD town hall help leaders communicate their priorities and find out what is on the minds of their staff.

With only 15 percent of the federal workforce in the D.C. area, agencies have the challenge of bridging offices from coast to coast. Yesterday’s HUD town hall demonstrates that with the help of a little technology, it is possible to bring everyone into one room and talk about what matters.

Not only can it help improve internal communication but it can also help inspire and motivate staff. “I find this new approach very refreshing and inspirational,” wrote Enrique Ramirez, who has worked at HUD for more than 36 years, on an online comment board following the meeting. “I was very impressed by the honesty and sincerity of the interaction.”

James Hairston is a Research Associate and Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress on the Doing What Works project.