A new survey of Seattle Human Services Department staff reveals widespread dissatisfaction with HSD management among staff, who report feeling left out of the loop when it comes to decisions in the department that impact them directly, including staffing changes.
The survey, which had a response rate of 64 percent, shows the highest level of dissatisfaction in HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investments division, which leads the city’s response to homelessness.
That division has been under scrutiny throughout the homelessness crisis, most recently after the revelation—first reported at The C Is for Crank and picked up by KUOW and the Seattle Times—that the city does not know precisely how many people the programs it funds are moving from homelessness into permanent housing.
The mayor has also sparked uncertainty in the department in recent weeks with her proposal to move to a regional approach to homelessness, which would involve the creation of a new joint King County-Seattle agency to oversee the region’s homelessness response. The idea was first floated in December, but it seems to have become a more frequent Durkan-HSD talking point in recent weeks; last week, for example, HSD staffers said that regional governance would help address both the data issue and the effectiveness of the Navigation Team, which was recently the subject of a critical audit.
In an email transmitting the results of the survey to HSD employees, interim director Jason Johnson acknowledged that the impending switch to a completely different governance structure—one that might involve absorbing some of HSD’s responsibilities into a new regional agency—has caused “anxiety.”
“I want to acknowledge over the past year there has been a shift in both mayoral and departmental leadership and a major initiative moving forward with the City of Seattle and King County to change the governance structure promoting a deeper collaboration to address homelessness,” Johnson wrote. “Like the leadership changes we had in 2014, this new significant major initiative could change the structure of our organization; this creates anxiety within the organization and could be reflected in the survey. This need to create stability as a department and ensure employees with community are at the forefront of our processes as we move forward.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan has nominated Johnson—who has been interim director for a year—as permanent HSD director. City council member Kshama Sawant, as well as some human services groups and HSD staff, have opposed the nomination, arguing that Durkan did not go through a “transparent and inclusive” process to find a new director. Sawant failed this week to pass a resolution that would stop Johnson’s appointment and start a new process led by human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD staff, but the appointment itself remains in limbo, largely because her committee is the one that is supposed to take it up.
Overall, the statements with the highest negative responses (that is, the percentage of people who disagreed with a statement) were:
• Recognition is distributed equitably at HSD.
• Changes with staffing, including temporary and out of class changes are successfully communicated out to staff
• Communication at the Human Services Department is a two-way street; management talks and listens
• The Executive Team keeps employees informed about matters effecting [sic] us.
• HSD values people as its most important resource.
The last three statements on that list, the survey found, were also among the lowest-scoring statements on similar surveys in 2014 and 2016.
Employees were most likely to agree with statements about race and social justice training and implementation of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative; three of the five statements with the highest level of “yes” responses involved RSJI:
• I am supported / encouraged in taking RSJI trainings
• My Supervisor keeps me informed about matters affecting me.
• I am able to effectively apply RSJI within my current position.
• I have taken advantage of career and/or personal growth opportunities within HSD
• RSJI is part of HSD’s culture.
Not surprisingly, people in management and executive-level positions were more likely to agree with statements like, “The Executive Team keeps employees informed about matters effecting [sic] us” and “Communication at the Human Services Department is a two-way street; management talks and listens.” In fact, managers and executive-level staffers responded more positively to every question in the survey, with executive staffers scoring some questions at 100% (meaning that every executive-level staffer surveyed strongly agreed with the statement).
Overall, people in the homelessness division were less likely than other HSD employees to agree with the statement that “management talks and listens” and with the statement that staffing changes “are successfully communicated to staff.” Homelessness staffers were also the least likely of all HSD divisions to agree with the statement, “Recognition is distributed equitably at HSD.” The survey results don’t indicate what specific concerns homelessness division staffers raised in their responses.
Although responses to some of the survey questions were more positive than they were in 2014, the survey showed a drop (that is, more negative responses) in nearly every category of question between 2016 and last year.
“Since my time here in the department, the leadership of HSD has intentionally created opportunities to engage with all staff,” Johnson wrote in his email to staff. “I am firmly committed to continuing this engagement and will look to find new ways for continuous improvements on how I do better as a leader and as a department.”