The client’s perspective
The United States Census Bureau serves as the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy. Its activities are critical, and its stakeholders have become more extensive and their needs more varied; the Bureau’s work has also been complicated by budget reductions, declining public response rates, rapidly changing technology, and growth in available information to the public from other sources. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of both external and internal Census Bureau activities is the cornerstone of its continuing success.
Within the Census Bureau, the Budget Division (BUD) performs essential functions including allocation and control of all funds as well as preparation, submission, and justification of official budget estimates. Yet recently BUD had been facing its own set of challenges. Since the 2008 recession, BUD has seen significant turnover in staff. Those who remained found they did not have the documented policies, processes, standard operating procedures, or internal control documents they needed to work efficiently. In a state of continual flux, staff often had to scramble to complete tasks. Inconsistent information meant leaders often could not get the quick answers they needed.
BUD wanted to create a different environment that would improve both efficiency and morale. Its immediate needs were clear. First, it needed a new budget operations manual that would house all BUD policies and processes and serve as a go-to for new employees and auditors. Second, BUD needed to refine selected components of this manual on a priority basis over time. BUD brought Eagle Hill on board to work with two of its four service areas: Budget Operations and Planning (BOP) and Budget Execution and Program Evaluation (BEPE).
A new view
Eagle Hill began by documenting BOP and BEPE’s existing processes with the goal of thoroughly understanding their current states, challenges, and successes. First, we methodically interviewed stakeholders at all levels and pored through the organization’s existing repositories to build an inventory of 140 policies and procedures. We then sorted through these, identifying which were updates, which were outdated, and which were duplicates to uncover the roughly 30 processes that needed true review.
Next we identified the highest priority processes for improvement, according to impact. Eagle Hill took an unconventional approach to this piece of the challenge, employing a “sprint” methodology more commonly seen in IT development. This allowed us to target a process to document, improve, test, and approve—all within a five- to eight-week period.
Next we conducted our process review—including external research and benchmarking—and our analysis of gaps and opportunities. For example, we recommended that the process for dealing with variances include research on both the budget division and directorate sides to determine the root cause, followed by in-person meetings to discuss variance resolution and to report back to team leaders.
Finally, we created formal process documentation for approval and publication. We supplemented our comprehensive, step-by-step procedure documents with both FAQs and a detailed visual of the process flow created in Visio as aids to those who would be conducting the processes.
An unconventional approach—and breakthrough results
BUD staff at all levels have embraced the changes enthusiastically. Those on the line were eager to put the stresses of scrambling and concerns over compliance behind them. BUD leadership appreciated not only the quick results, but the way Eagle Hill worked collaboratively to get them. We took the time to get to know BUD’s business and to follow and respect the rhythms of its work environment. By working so closely with BUD, we were attuned to its staffing pressures and were sensitive to time our requests in ways that would ensure progress without overburdening an already strained workforce.
To mitigate surprises along the way, each sprint cycle followed a formalized communications plan that Eagle Hill developed to keep all identified decision makers for that sprint in the loop. The communications plan specified the key stakeholders, as well as the vehicles for and frequency of communication.