Time for a culture check

Turns out that a cultural audit really is a thing. Who knew?

I hadn’t heard the term until the Gainesville City Commission met a couple of weeks ago to decide what, if anything, to do about their manager, Lee Feldman.

On the job only a year, Feldman has drawn complains from inside City Hall. And an outside investigation report recommended he be fired for (maybe/maybe not) retaliating against an employee who accused him of discrimination.

After a testy discussion, the commission voted 4-3 in support of Feldman. “We can’t fire our way out of a cultural problem,” Commissioner Harvey Ward said, noting that Gainesville’s last two city managers have found themselves at odds with entrenched senior staffers.

So rather than shop around for yet another manager, they opted to do a cultural audit of city government.

The suggestion was brought to commissioners by City Auditor Virginia Bigbie, a city charter officer who is herself relatively new to City Hall, having been hired only last December.

“It was a new concept to me,” says Mayor Lauren Poe. “After learning more about it I saw a lot of opportunities. It looks at how the organization functions, from how policies are developed, to internal management and communications procedures.

“I guess the best way to describe it is to look at how the gears of the organization fit together and identify the weaknesses. We have all these internal policies developed over several years by different managers and charter officers. They don’t necessarily make sense any more, and are not conducive to getting the work done.”

Wanting to become an instant expert, I of course turned to Google.

“A cultural audit will help you to assess where your organization is at and whether workplace culture is supporting your overall business goals. It will help you to assess the effectiveness of your working environment, employee engagement and internal communications.”

Got it.

As far as I can gather, the process involves employee surveys, focus groups and a parsing over of decision making procedures, city policies and management practices to try to determine what’s what and who’s who…or who isn’t.

Bigbie gave commissioners case studies of cultural audits of San Francisco’s Transportation Agency – which had been plagued by high absentee rates – and Oregon’s somewhat dysfunctional Department of Revenue. The San Francisco audit found that employees felt undervalued and complained of poor internal communications and accountability.

And like Gainesville, Oregon’s DOR had a high turnover of top managers, creating confusing and conflicting directives that impacted on employee moral and departmental efficiency.

“What we are trying to achieve here is to identity a common purpose,” Commissioner Ward said. “I want to believe that after changing managers four times in five years people have a hard time knowing what direction we are going.

“At its root it’s a question of getting reoriented to a common purpose,” he continued. “For all of us to remember what we’re doing here.”

There’s no question that something needs to start meshing in city government. Like his predecessor, Anthony Lyons, Feldman’s tenure here has been marked by internal turmoil. And for their part some commissioners have grown frustrated about making policy decisions and then having to wait months, or longer, for staff compliance.

So, yes, let’s do a cultural audit and see if we can figure out why people aren’t playing well together in City Hall.

And, listen, if that doesn’t work, we can always run out and hire another city manager.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at rondarts2008@gmail.com.

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