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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

  • Morven

    Always a good thing to ask staff these questions.

    But before we all get upset, the real question to ask is whether the stakeholders (ie the voters) have confidence in the management and direction of the city.

    That does not look good either.

  • Richard

    All of a sudden, your story on the globe and mail web sight turns into coverage of Falcon’s leadership bid. Just a bit confusing.

  • Bill McCreery

    There has been a hiring freeze for the past year. The Planning Department is currently @ 60% of its complement & are not permitted overtime. I don’t think staff are working to rule. They are to conscientious for that. In fact, they want to put in extra time but are not allowed to.

    The frustration your developer contact is expressing is what I’ve been saying for some time. If planning is held back = projects don’t get approved = projects don’t get built = construction unemployment & reduced City revenue = more cuts & CUPE unemployment…..

    Another reason for the dissatisfaction.

  • piker

    I don’t think it is a matter of wanting to stay: it’s that the competition for similar positions throughout the region is incredible.

    Vancouver city workers – and public servant working in Metro looking to maintain their pension and benefits in these uncertain economic times – are trapped. There are only so many planning or policy jobs to go around.

    Municipalities, Crown corporations, provincial government (any union or management position): if they can get a posting approved, they are innudated with more than qualified candidates.

  • diderot too

    If Penny Ballem can’t ‘get her head around’ some of the answers it could be because she has such a high sense of self importance that she can’t see the obvious: it’s her. People do believe in the value of their jobs, but do not trust top management nor believe that they have a vision(pun inteneded) for the City. People generally do trust their immediate supervisor, but are so disempowered by the controlling approach that their work load has lessened under PB’s watch. At the same time the work that needs to be done has actually increased because the time it takes to do any particular work item has increased as top-brass double guess themselves trying to not send anyting up to the CM that will bring down the harsh, biting, dismissive criticism from her.
    Another interpretation of the greater degree of disatisfaction among longer-term employees is that they actually have enough perspective to see that change, real change, in a positive direction, is actually happening less under this senior management, than before.

    Word travels fast among co-workers and hearing about episodes of Ballem shouting “I could come over there and wring your neck” do very little to make people fell like sticking their neck out, taking risk, going the extra mile, etc.

  • TD

    People, you cannot have a poll on leadership , when there is none! Ballem. 16 slides in a PPP for approx. 20,000 a slide. How ridiculous is that?

  • Deacon Blue

    A post-Olympics economic downtown for the host city, and towers for every neighbourhood where people don’t like them.

    It’s a Rock and a Hard Place.

  • But it was hard to tell from the survey exactly whose leadership employees weren’t confident in, right? As it could have meant an immediate superior or it could mean the entire management team. Look over the topics here to gain more ideas for survey.

  • Rocktenhard

    The city will do what TELUS did with thier survey.Put pressure on supervisiors to force employees to lie on the survey…….bingo GOOD Results.

  • Otis Krayola

    @Morven #1

    Not so sure…

    I grant that there are some very ticked off people, but that’s what they are… very ticked off.

    Whether that plays out as a significant number of voters who are even somewhat ticked off, well, that’s really the question.

    I’m aware of a few that Hate Vision really Hard.

    But that might not translate to a lot (those that bother to vote) that hate them enough to plump, or vote contrary entirely.

  • mary

    What will be interesting is if Vision supporters just stay home on election day. All that will likely happen is a reduction in their numbers on Council because there are so few nominees from NPA, and COPE is not likely to draw voters back across the City. Still, the most effective Councils have been ones that are most evenly split across the spectrum. It keeps everybody honest.

  • TD

    Vancouver city employees are stressed out by the opportunistic, arrogant manner in which Ballem and her Vision hacks is conducting business. Despite that they want to stay with the city…of course, the city trough is still providing handsomely for everyone. Right now they are in the stage of denial, when they will sell their colleague for a .25 cents hourly rate increase and a better job name, like ‘executive paper mover’ It’s only a matter of time when they will be let go. The new Vision Jugend are in need of starter jobs. So, yes, bureaucrats of the world unite! For now…