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Vancouver employee survey shows lack of confidence in leadership — but people want to stay working at the city

December 1st, 2010 · 12 Comments

Didn’t get this up last night, but here is my story on the Vancouver city hall employee survey that popped up as a surprise item at the last minute for yesterday’s council meeting, with city manager Penny Ballem doing a two-hour presentation and Q and A with council on the survey plus a report on labour relations from another consultant.

There’s a lot of material in the report and survey, which none of us in the media could possibly cover all of so here’s the link to it.

Does it look good?

No. As the consultant noted, the indicators of employee satisfaction were below the averages for other public-sector agencies and for private-sector companies in all areas except “stress and workload,” where the city was higher than average with employees who feel those two items are manageable. (As I noted, the VPD’s survey, which came out the same day, showed employee satisfaction at 70 per cent.)

The areas that were particularly low:

– Confidence in leadership (27 per cent were favourable, 30 per cent couldn’t decide, 43 per cent were unfavourable)

– Development opportunites (34 per cent were favourable)

– Work structure and process (35 per cent were favourable)

– Clear and promising direction (44 per cent were favourable, but 29 per cent were unfavourable)

Vision councillors timidly asked questions to try to put the numbers in context, knowing all reporters would run out anyway saying morale is terrible at city hall.

JJJ asked for my thoughts. Here they are:

– This administration deserves some credit for actually doing this survey. For a group that hates bad news, this was almost inevitably going to be bad news. They didn’t have to do it, but they did anyway.

– This likely does reflect some unhappiness at city hall that is connected to the current administration, especially the changes that Penny Ballem is bringing in and the way she is bringing them in. But I don’t think these numbers are solely attributable to just the current situation.

As Mark Jackson from the Hay Group noted, you’re unlikely to see a change of more than about 10 per cent in a two-year period.

– It doesn’t tell us whether things are worse than better than two years ago or five years ago or 10 years ago.

– There’s a lot of bad history with employee relations at city hall: many strikes or episodes of working to rule; a lingering sour taste in many people’s mouths still from when Judy Rogers cancelled the four-day work week at city hall; a lot of frustration about what’s seen as waste and lack of respect for employees for many years. If you had done surveys at certain key points in the past, you would have got results much worse than this.

— I don’t have a clear idea of what different levels of people are unhappy about. What people in the bottom four-fifths of the organization — the parking-ticket issuers and recycling picker-uppers and permit issuers — think is not working at city hall is likely very different from what the more senior people, the ones we are hearing the most from about how they can’t take the efforts to control and hyper-manage everything, think is not working.

But it all does indicate a problem that needs to be worked on. And while that unhappy group of people in the top fifth of the organization don’t represent everyone, they are the ones whose poor morale is the most visible and having a significant impact on the organization as a whole.

Just anecdotally, here are some of the things I’ve heard in the past few months in casual conversations with people:

– Someone who works for a major developer told me last week it feels hopeless working with the planning department these days. “It’s like they’re all working to rule. Even XX, who’s a new guy and was enthusiastic and great a while ago, it now feels like he’s just going through the motions.”

– There are managers who do like the new direction and management at city hall. Yes, hard to believe if you only listen to the critics, but there are quite a few who think Penny is smart and doing stuff that needed to be done long ago. And I’ve heard even major supporters of former city manager Judy Rogers say that her style — never saying much publicly, making people guess which direction she was really going, letting every department at the city kind of go its own way, lack of centralized financial control — was a problem. But those gung-ho managers are struggling with other staff who are less enthusiastic and basically operating in first gear or reverse, hoping to be bought out.

– I continue to hear about people who want to leave because they just don’t feel like their work is valued or that they have any real say.

– The new media policy continues to be demoralizing for many at city hall. It has been revised, by the way. Media have been given a list of about 15 senior managers at city hall whom we are now allowed to contact at will. But it leaves off dozens of people who have been regular and helpful sources for the media in the past, along with others we may want to contact in the future.

The unmistakeable message for staff on the no-fly list is that they’re considered too dumb, too unable to express themselves coherently, or too dangerous to be allowed to speak publicly. As one said, “They’re telling us we can’t talk because we’re not supposed to express opinions before reports are discussed by council. But we’re paid to write reports that have our recommendations in them.”

Categories: City Hall Talk