Agency improvement is getting crowdsourced at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, via a website called Switchboard.
Jay Austin—known by some people at HUD as “chief idea implementer”—manages Switchboard, which started in 2009 as a way for people to weigh in on the agency’s five-year strategic plan. After Austin arrived in 2010, he started transforming the internal feedback tool into an agency-wide idea board open to all.
“Anyone can submit an idea,” said Austin, 25, program manager for Switchboard in HUD’s Office of Strategic Planning and Management, and the main Switchboard “operator.”
“We wanted to create something that allowed us to sell Switchboard as a connection to government,” he said. “The idea that you can plug in and pitch ideas and concerns directly to HUD employees and leadership was important to us.”
HUD employees, in particular, are encouraged to share their concerns and suggestions, but the agency has opened the posts and responses to the public.“Government should be transparent, open and, at all times, reachable,” said Austin, who works with two team members. “That’s what Switchboard aims to do.”
Switchboard users get 25 votes, and they can support each idea they like with up to three of their votes. Ideas that receive more than 200 votes go for review to HUD’s deputy secretary. When they pass muster, Austin creates teams to turn these ideas into reality.
The voters who liked the idea are asked to help implement it, leading to a mix of employees from all levels working together to change the agency for the better.
To make sure good ideas are proposed and implemented, Austin also works on communications, branding, outreach and logistics. “It’s a lot of collecting people in a room, explaining what and who we need and making it happen,” said Austin, whose online signature on the idea board is “jay, (real human being, US Department of Housing & Urban Development).”
One successful program came from a HUD employee’s idea that the agency subsidize bike-share memberships for headquarters employees to promote healthy commuting and save HUD money on transit subsidies. The idea quickly received the necessary votes, and the deputy secretary supported it.
Hundreds of employees now take advantage of the perk, a plus both for employees and taxpayers.
The bulk of the ideas posted aim to improve HUD internal operations and morale. One suggested creating a standard online application for people who need housing so it can be submitted to any HUD-subsidized apartment. And during this anniversary year of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, someone suggested honoring the 35 HUD employees killed there 20 years ago.”
Recently, someone suggested that HUD use an internship program that prepares military veterans and wounded warriors for employment as a way to hire staff for the agency.
As Switchboard evolved, Austin and his team noticed people were submitting requests for general housing help, whether it was for assistance with foreclosure processes or help for homeless individuals to find housing, and this led to a new HUD service.
“These are people in immediate need, and we didn’t really have an effective way to deal with that,” he said.
Austin added a ticketing function that ensures help requests get a response. HUD now monitors the mailbox Austin set up, and each information request is answered within 48 hours.
“Every idea and comment gets a review,” said Austin. “We’re trying to give HUD a human face and a human voice.”
Austin grew up in a “pretty poor neighborhood,” he said, and spent most of his teenage years in foster care. It made him realize that “not all spaces were created equal,” that some were better than others. “I came to HUD hoping to do my small part to correct that inequality—to create safe, sustainable spaces for anyone who needs one.”
Henry Hensley, director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Management, said Austin “brings a lot of energy to the table. “He’s a good agitator and does a great job of stirring the pot.”
“He’s also good at connecting with people, particularly millennials,” Hensley added. He is “really changing the culture of HUD from one of a traditional government agency to one of a Silicon Valley tech startup,” Hensley said. “He wants to make HUD attractive to younger generations, and he’s done a remarkable job.”
Other agencies hoping to spark new ideas in their organizations have expressed interest in Switchboard.
Austin said the program “gives people the opportunity to change what’s not working for them—to give them a vote, if they want it, every single day.”
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. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.