Our Opinion: Change in culture never easy

Published 4:55 pm Friday, October 20, 2023

Looking inward in order to fix one’s self can be one of the most difficult things we do as human beings. It requires us to not only acknowledge our vulnerabilities, but it will also often included displaying them for everybody else.

The Austin City Council and the City of Austin is having to do that right now following the dour results of an employee survey that reflected what many have already known.

Employee Strategies conducted the survey earlier this year and when it came back, it did more than simply raise eyebrows. It opened bare a systemic culture of distrust and dissatisfaction with city administration, current benefits and more by the city’s employees.

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The blistering results were so bad that they were the lowest the company has seen in its history, a milestone that no employer ever wants to celebrate.

For some time now, these issues have boiled and churned beneath the surface, but at times it has breached the surface and flowed ugly and raw into the public for all to see. The struggles between the City Council, administration and the Parks, Recreation and Forestry board has perhaps been the most open wound of late, culminating in an ugly week in August when then Parks and Rec director Dave Merrill was let go just days ahead of his final day. He resigned his position, pointing to the difficulties of finding common ground on much of anything.

The firing came after a Facebook post by Merrill on the Parks and Rec page that outlined some of those issues, which carried into an informal town hall meeting where he laid out grievances beheld from his side.

It was an unfortunate turn that soured the outlook further.

The survey uncovered that just 30% of employees had positive responses for the city. Worse than that only 25% had positive job satisfaction reviews. As has been mentioned in previous stories, both of those numbers come depressingly below the average of 57% Employee Strategies is used to seeing.

This simply can’t continue and so the city is now taking a deep look into how to fix it. Despite many people’s feelings of how the problems are fixed, it must be roundly understood that one single fix will not right the ship.

It’s easy to point the finger, but harder still to turn that gestured blame inward. It’s at least heartening that the City Council and administration is taking steps to identify problems, but the question continues to hang: what steps could have been taken before the City Council agreed to pay money in order to bring an outside entity in?

In the coming months, the City Council has agreed to continue working with Employee Strategies on a three-pronged proposal that will includes paying $25,000 for a two-day planning session in January, $20,000 for an Employee Pulse Survey and Blueprinting Sessions and $45,000 for leadership 360’s, with $4,500 either being added or subtracted for each elevation.

It can be agreed that these are now necessary steps, but it’s hard not to wonder where that money could have been directed before we even got to this point.

As outsiders looking in, who admittedly maybe aren’t aware of all the nuances of the situation, it is understandable if those who depend on a healthy governmental body ask and urge city leaders of all stations — from the council to department heads — to understand that it will take everybody to fix this.

Mayor Steve King admitted as much at this past Monday’s City Council meeting when he stressed that this can’t just be the City Council requiring others to fix the problem.

“We have to own this problem,” he said. “We are very much a part of the problem. We need to allow policy to be policy.”

It’s refreshing that there is finally a quick breath of positivity and we hope some momentum can be built with the unfurled sails of a ship holding course. This will be long voyage and we can only hope that lessons learned will be lessons maintained so this never becomes an issue again.