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Transforming Processes and Elevating Morale at U.S. Census Bureau

The client’s perspective

The United States Census Bureau (Census Bureau) serves as the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy. Its activities are critical, but today they are set against a rapidly changing background: stakeholders have become more extensive and their needs more varied, even as the Bureau’s work has been complicated by budget reductions, declining public response rates, growth in available information to the public from other sources, and rapidly changing technology. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of both external and internal Census Bureau activities will be the cornerstone of its continuing success.

Within the Census Bureau, the Budget Division’s (BUD’s) four service areas perform essential functions, including preparation, submission, and justification of official budget estimates, and allocation and control of all funds. Yet recently BUD had been facing its own set of challenges. Once federal agencies lifted their hiring freezes after the recession, BUD saw significant turnover in staff. Those who remained found they did not have the documented policies, processes, standard operating procedures, or internal control documents that they required to work efficiently. In a state of continual flux, staff often had to scramble to complete tasks. Leaders could not get the quick answers they needed because of inconsistent information.

A new view

BUD wanted to create a different environment that would improve both efficiency and morale. Its immediate needs were clear. First, BUD must create a new budget operations manual that would house all BUD policies and processes. This manual would serve as a go-to reference, training, and onboarding guide for new employees, and as a reference for auditors. Second, BUD needed to refine selected components of this manual on a priority basis over time.

BUD brought Eagle Hill on board in late 2014 to work with its Budget Operations and Planning (BOP) and Budget Execution and Program Evaluation (BEPE) service areas. Eagle Hill was chosen because BUD recognized that a small company with a great reputation could be agile and provide the level of focused and personalized service that would bring quick results.

We began by documenting BOP and BEPE’s existing processes. Our goal was to cement an understanding of their current state, challenges, and successes. Eagle Hill first 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 policies and procedures, identifying which were updates, which were outdated, and which were duplicates to get to roughly 30 processes that needed true review.

Next, working closely with the division chief and the assistant division chiefs, we identified the highest priority processes for improvement, based on the processes’ impact. Eagle Hill took a highly unusual and innovative approach to this piece of the challenge, employing a “sprint” methodology more commonly seen in IT development. Under this sprint approach, we would target a process to document, improve, test, and approve—all within a five- to eight-week period.

For a client desiring new stability in its work procedures, the uniformity of each sprint cycle was highly appealing. At the beginning of each sprint, Eagle Hill would meet with the client to kick off the process, understand the scope of the process, set boundaries, and identify the experts to shadow. We documented the outcomes of these meetings to present to key stakeholders, who would then approve the approach.

Next we would conduct 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 of the variance, followed by in-person meetings to discuss variance resolution and to report back to team leaders.

Finally, we would create the 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

To date, Eagle Hill has conducted ten sprints. These “micro-bursts” of activity have given the client tremendous benefits: the flexibility to change their priorities while still attaining remarkable results quickly. For example, if a priority changed, Eagle Hill could incorporate that change in the next sprint cycle, which was never more than a couple of weeks away.

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 with them to get the results. We took the time to get to know BUD’s business and to follow and respect the rhythms of the BUD 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.

Based on our work to date, Eagle Hill recently received a 10/10 client satisfaction rating and had our option year executed to continue working through the full list of BUD’s targeted processes.