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After Rock-Bottom Rating, SBA Works to Boost Morale

By Stephen Barr
Monday, January 14, 2008

A new management team at the Small Business Administration is trying to turn the tide.

Two years ago, SBA employees gave their agency such low marks that the agency finished last in a Best Places to Work in the Federal Government index, worse than even the much-maligned Department of Homeland Security.

Steven C. Preston, who became the SBA administrator in July 2006 -- a few months after the last-place finish -- decided he needed to overhaul operations and find a way to deal with worker frustrations and unhappiness.

Preston inherited an agency that was, he said, "flat on our back," overwhelmed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and unable to keep up with thousands of disaster-relief loan applications for homes and businesses. Allegations of fraud and lax oversight of programs also swirled around the SBA.

So he made listening to employees a priority. At meetings with employees, he would kick out managers, ask everyone to observe an oath of confidentiality and let the employees have their say.

Preston visited field offices and ramped up efforts to communicate with agency employees about the mission of the SBA -- helping Americans start and build businesses -- and how that related to their specific jobs. He brought in 1,400 employees, about half the agency's staff, for a week of training.

Preston reads every e-mail from employees and responds when he can, he said. Dozens of times, he said, employees pointed out problems and he followed up, "dug into something and found an issue or an opportunity to improve something."

Preston thinks his efforts are paying off. An employee survey conducted in October and released last month showed higher levels of satisfaction with the agency's leadership and training programs.

But Elaine Powell-Belnavis, a union leader at the SBA, said "morale is still bad, still low." She said many employees are reluctant to write to Preston because of concerns that they will draw the ire of their supervisors, who will remain long after Preston and the Bush administration are gone.

"The employees are not as happy as reflected on paper," said Powell-Belnavis, the head of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 228. "They are trying to give him a chance because he seems to want to do something, but morale in the field is still the same."

The White House recruited Preston from ServiceMaster, which provides lawn care, pest control and housekeeping, where he was an executive vice president. He had worked as a senior vice president at First Data and as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers. Preston replaced Hector V. Barreto, who had drawn criticism for his handling of SBA disaster relief.

In fall 2006, Preston made the SBA's loan disaster process faster. He also plans to revamp other operations in coming months.

Based on the survey results, Preston thinks the agency is doing more to engage employees.

About 85 percent of SBA employees participated in the survey, which was administered by the agency. In several areas, employees reported higher levels of satisfaction than they did in 2006, when the Office of Personnel Management conducted a government-wide survey.

For example, 52.1 percent of the respondents said they were satisfied with the information they get from management "on what's going on in your organization," up 15.6 percentage points from 2006.

More than half of the employees said they have "a high level of respect" for the agency's senior leaders, up from a third who gave a positive response in 2006.

A higher percentage of employees also said they think the SBA's leadership is generating more motivation and commitment in the workforce -- 42.7 percent in 2007, compared with 25.5 percent in 2006.

The positive feedback was higher in the Office of Disaster Assistance, where Preston focused on reducing a backlog of work. Seventy-five percent of the disaster relief employees said they had a high level of respect for the SBA's senior leaders, and 60 percent said the agency leadership is generating more motivation and commitment in the workforce.

But the survey also showed that SBA employees continue to see problems in their workplace, as Powell-Belnavis, the union leader, indicated. Only 31 percent are satisfied by agency decisions that affect their work, up 5.5 percentage points from 2006.

Only 44.6 percent indicated they were satisfied with their involvement in workplace decisions, down four percentage points from 2006.

Some morale issues at the SBA will take time to turn around, Preston said. "We're happy with the progress, but this is not ultimate victory."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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