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SBA's Harrington: Improving the agency's ability to help small businesses

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From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, November 23, 2009; 4:46 AM

When President Obama assumed office in January, the Small Business Administration (SBA) faced some substantial economic challenges.

The agency's budget and staff had been cut significantly in the previous few years, and the number of guaranteed loans had dropped. Productivity and customer service was lagging, and the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings -- based on a survey of employee attitudes toward their workplaces -- ranked the SBA at the bottom of the large federal agencies.

Then, Eileen Harrington came into the picture. A veteran senior executive from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Harrington was charged with improving the SBA's management and reinvigorating its workforce as the Obama administration sought to increase lending opportunities for small businesses.

"This agency was ignored and not treated well for a number of years and the employees felt the pressure," Harrington said. "People were feeling beleaguered, stretched thin and they hunkered down in their jobs."

Serious efforts were undertaken at the end of the Bush administration to deal with employee unhappiness and workplace operations. Harrington was named the SBA's chief operating officer in April to build on these efforts while boosting employee morale and productivity.

"Our primary goal is to improve management and to get our employees what they need to do their jobs," Harrington said. "We want to move our organization into the high performing zone." She said this involved seeking employee feedback, engagement and changing discourse.

SBA Administrator Karen Mills said Harrington is making headway by "advancing our information technology and by offering training and development opportunities for our staff." She said the aim is to make the SBA "work smarter and more effectively" and in turn "increase our ability to help put small businesses back in a position to drive economic growth and create jobs."

Meghan Burdick, deputy chief of staff and White House liaison at the SBA, said Harrington is taking a hard look at how things are being run, whether certain procedures make sense, and how they can be changed to better serve the banks making the loans guaranteed by the SBA and the businesses that need the financial support.

"If processing a loan guarantee is taking longer than it's supposed to, she is looking at why that is happening and fixing it from inside," Burdick said. "She is looking at department by department, seeing how things flow back and forth, looking at communications among the staff, figuring out what needs to be fixed, what needs to be tweaked and making changes quickly and effectively."

Harrington came to the SBA after a long career at the Federal Trade Commission where she led a team that created the Do Not Call Registry, a system that enables consumers to block phone calls from telemarketers.

The registry is highly popular, with more than 150 million phone numbers registered to block unwanted marketing calls. She also led development of the FTC's Internet Fraud enforcement program, and coordinated domestic and international law enforcement programs to protect consumers.

Harrington said her goal at the FTC, and now at the SBA, is to make government work effectively. Achieving that, she said, requires paying close attention to "human capital."

"We need to make sure we are investing in the people, getting them the training they need, providing them with career opportunities and helping them understand how their jobs fit into the larger mission," Harrington said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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