HUD’s weekly meeting of minds

Executives overcome communication problems that trouble most agencies.

Every Monday at about 8:30 a.m. four chief executives — CXOs in the current parlance — walk into their boss’ office to tackle problems at the Housing and Urban Development Department. Sometimes, one of them brings coffee for the group. But even without a hit of caffeine, the CXOs — Lisa Schlosser, the chief information officer; John Cox, the chief financial officer; Joe Neurauter, the chief procurement officer; and Keith Nelson, the assistant secretary of administration — get right to work. They have no set agenda. No issues are off the table. It’s a gathering of four agency executives who want to communicate, coordinate and improve HUD.“Issues just come up,” Neurauter said. “Sometimes, the meeting lasts for 45 minutes and other times longer. It is very freewheeling. Our discussions lead to decisions, and no matter how small the issue, we all listen.”The weekly meetings, in many ways, have been the catalyst for changes at the agency, Schlosser said.“When I said I was going to HUD two-and-a-half years ago, people asked why,” she said. “HUD had been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list since 1994. It had a zero on the Federal Information Security Management Act report card. It was red across the President’s Management Agenda, and it had $3 billion in improper payments.”But now HUD is off the high-risk list and has no material weaknesses for the first time in 15 years. It has made substantial progress on the score cards and FISMA, and it has reduced improper payments by 60 percent, Schlosser said.“This team looks at change at an enterprise level,” she said. “We work the change-management issue together. We are rolling out Microsoft Outlook across the department, and without [the CXOs] on board, it would take a lot longer than it has.”Each CXO understands — or tries to understand — one another’s issues. Whether an issue is relatively small, such as establishing a common approach to training, or is something big, such as developing an online housing locator in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, working through issues is a joint effort.The collaboration “is driven by our personal relationships and our personalities,” Cox said. “We don’t care who gets the credit. We care what the right thing to do for the agency is.”A perfect example, Cox said, was when he and Schlosser went to Capitol Hill to argue for more technology funding for HUD.“Lisa and I went to talk to the Senate staff members because we needed more IT money in our working capital fund,” he said. “We laid out what we will do and how we will use the money. It was a powerful thing because we went up there together.”The collaboration, Nelson added, helps HUD stay ahead of issues instead of having to constantly put out fires. “We can be 80 percent strategic and 20 percent reactive instead of the other way around,” he said. “We know what is coming down the road and when.”Cox added, “We don’t always agree, but it doesn’t turn into a mash where we beat our heads together.”

A case study in CXO collaborationIn the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Housing and Urban Development Department had little time to create a publicly accessible database of affordable housing. HUD’s officials quickly went into action.

Multiple Web sites listed affordable housing, but there was no Web portal from which users could reach all the sites. HUD’s program officials worked with several companies to establish a technical and data strategy.

Joe Neurauter, chief procurement officer at HUD, helped find a contract the department could use to buy the necessary services in a short time. John Cox, the department’s chief financial officer, found $250,000 to pay for the work. Cox and Keith Nelson, HUD’s assistant secretary of administration, received permission from Congress to reprogram funds.

In all, the project took three months from concept to final product, said Lisa Schlosser, HUD’s chief information officer.

“We knew how important this was, developed a strategy and got it done,” Neurauter said.

— Jason Miller

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