The client’s perspective

The Office of Grants and Acquisition Policy and Accountability (OGAPA) at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides leadership in the management of grants, acquisitions, and small business utilization for HHS. Through policy development, OGAPA provides the structures and guidelines intended to lead to greater collaboration, innovation, accountability, and recipient integrity in how grants and acquisitions are administered across HHS.

OGAPA is the number one grant-making organization in the government and number three in acquisitions. However, internal challenges were affecting its critical work. OGAPA experienced multiple turnovers of top leadership and staff at lower levels over the course of a few years. What’s more, much of the workforce was approaching retirement age, creating serious concerns about long-term organizational sustainability.

OGAPA knew it needed to take quick and decisive action—and turned to us to examine leadership and performance-management effectiveness, as well as the workforce’s connection to HHS organizational vision, core values, and culture.

A new view

Eagle Hill knew our work on an organizational assessment and improvement plan would be critical to driving genuine improvements in service delivery, employee engagement, and adherence to organizational core values.

The four main components of OGAPA’s work (grants, acquisitions, small business utilization, and recipient integrity) all interrelate, so any changes would have a ripple effect. We had to be sure we uncovered all the underlying issues and implications.

We started by engaging stakeholders through a series of one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and surveys. We offered multiple ways for people to provide feedback, and went out of our way to ensure employees felt comfortable talking to us. For example, we sometimes even refrained from note-taking—creating a relaxed dialogue where people could speak freely about their experiences.

To gain as comprehensive a picture as possible, we got input from 100 percent of OGAPA’s current employees, and from former employees and customer groups as well. What we heard, we validated quantitatively through surveys. Because trust and transparency were key, we communicated findings openly and honestly to all staff.

We identified three areas for focus—customer service, mission and vision, and soft skills—and led a series of improvement planning workshops with managers and senior executives. Working together in small groups, we developed short- and long-term action plans for addressing each area of focus. For example, one immediate action was a “get to know me” profile form with employees’ professional and personal information like favorite songs, books, and quotes, which could be featured on a rotating employee achievement board each month. This effort garnered 90 percent participation, and has made significant progress building connections among employees. Another immediate action was to institute a suggestion box and office hours for leadership to be available to employees’ concerns. Already, employees state that the programs are improving trust.

After these workshops, we opened the discussion more widely to members of staff and held sessions to develop additional improvement activities. To give employees the “seat at the table” they’d requested, we created three teams of change agents from the GS-9 to the SES levels. Each team would execute improvement plans in one of the three focus areas, with guidance from us on conducting the strategic planning sessions with purpose. Empowering employees to contribute to the improvement agenda for their own work environment has been a resounding early success for OGAPA.

In response to employees’ desire to feel more connected to the organization, we established a number of new engagement opportunities, including a quarterly blog featuring employee interviews and resources for professional and personal development. Other new programs included a Vision Cloud of OGAPA’s shared core values and vision, an employee appreciation award, and a Lunch and Learn speaker series to strengthen soft skills and educate employees. These initiatives have resulted in a more collaborative and communicative OGAPA where employees better understand their shared mission and goals.

Unconventional consulting—and breakthrough results

Core to Eagle Hill’s successful approach was recognizing employees as individuals who needed—and wanted—to see how they fit into a larger group. OGAPA’s long-standing emphasis on staff members’ subject matter expertise had inadvertently developed a siloed culture that had to be broken down. In this regard, we led by example, empowering employees to work together to solve their own problems. Our job was to give them the support to succeed, rather than propose ready-made solutions.

In just six months, survey results showed the program had already exceeded the entire year’s goals for developing management effectiveness at recognizing team accomplishments. 66 percent of employees described themselves as more knowledgeable about ongoing accomplishments than they had been a year before, and 44 percent reported better understanding of OGAPA’s mission, vision, and goals.

Building off the momentum of these tactical “quick wins,” our longer-term strategies look to create a culture of continuous improvement across OGAPA. They include creating a program to expose employees to additional functions across OGAPA; providing opportunities for staff members to lead segments of organizational meetings; implementing a new, across-the-board Customer Engagement Strategy; and instituting executive and leadership coaching programs.

By the end of FY18, with Eagle Hill at its side, OGAPA aims to become an organization that is a beacon of leadership and expertise in grants, acquisition, and small business utilization across the federal government.