Did Ott Hide Ethics Study From Council?

Many employees don't believe city has a strong ethical culture, 2010 survey shows

City Manager Marc Ott, at a September 2010 Council meeting
City Manager Marc Ott, at a September 2010 Council meeting (Photo by John Anderson)

Austin City Manager Marc Ott had a bad week last week. That it stemmed from something that occurred more than two years ago stands to make it all the worse. On May 8, City Hall newsletter In Fact Daily published excerpts from a 2010 consultant study of internal city staff perceptions of the city's ethics programs and the management team ultimately responsible for them. It seemed to positively level any notion that city employees believe that Austin is indeed anything close to the nation's best managed city. That same day, the Audit and Finance Committee of the Austin City Council grilled city staff on the document – which most of them hadn't seen until last week – and why it took so long for it to see the light of day. On Thursday, IFD quoted a well-placed source who claimed knowledge of a meeting where Ott himself "lost it" and suggested to the consultant behind the study that they rewrite its executive summary to lend a more positive spin to things.

Ott, through Chief Communications Director Doug Matthews, promptly denied the allegations from Council and IFD's source. Mark Washington, the head of the city's human resources department, told Council members at the Audit and Finance meeting that management had reservations about the methodology used by the consultants, a well-regarded D.C.-area firm called Ethics Resource Center. Matthews echoed that notion, telling IFD that management had never in fact considered the study complete. None of this – especially a lack of direct response from Ott to Council – did anything to diffuse the lingering thought that maybe Ott had simply buried the thing.

It's not hard to see why. Admittedly, the study is dated. And management may well have concerns over how it was conducted. Still, the document is a scintillating read – even with its dry, academic prose. It concludes that only two-thirds of survey respondents believe that the city has a strong ethical culture. That figure is well below the national average for their peers, which sits at 80%. "By the four primary target measures – pressure, observation of misconduct, reporting of misconduct, and retaliation – the City performs less favorably compared to the US Averages," it reads.

Later detail includes this dismal finding: Some 26% of city employees "agree that their department rewards those who use questionable means to achieve objectives. Fewer than half of employees, 44%, believe that those who use questionable means to achieve objectives are not rewarded, compared to 61% and 63% in the Local and All Govt Averages. Research shows, unsurprisingly, that rewarding unethical behavior substantially increases the amount of pressure to compromise organizational standards; and where there is pressure, there is misconduct. These results point to a need to encourage employees to do the right thing without cutting corners."

The ERC study singles out five problematic city departments: Fire, EMS, Parks and Recreation, Solid Waste Services, and Human Resources. Solid Waste – now Aus­tin Resource Recovery – has since undergone a massive restructuring that came at the behest of another study. Fire, EMS, Human Resources, and PARD remain under the management of officials who were serving in that capacity at the time the study was conducted.

And it gets worse for upper management. It turns out that they asked the consulting company to break responses down by layers of city management – not something the firm typically does. Those at the top got the worst marks. "Of the four component cultures, employee perceptions of senior leadership are the least favorable," reads the report. "This is typical in organizations; however, the disparity in perceptions about the senior leadership and the supervisor and co-worker cultures is greater than that seen in the US Averages. There is an opportunity to increase the perception of the 'tone at the top' in the City."

More than 4,000 city employees responded to the survey that ERC used to conduct its research. That represents roughly 40% of the workforce – a relatively enormous sample size. That should make its results fairly statistically sound. But one of management's concerns about the figures is a reported tally for some departments that may reflect more than 100% participation.

This raises another question: Why conduct the study in the first place? Ott's minions have made it clear that Council did not request it – which is why no elected official saw the document until this spring. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner, who was the city's integrity officer at the time, may have asked for the study, a $40,000 job, to establish a baseline measurement for ethics perceptions. If that was the case, surely Ott would have had to OK the expense. And, after all, it seems as though such an effort would go perfectly with Ott's mantra of "Best Managed City."

Still, Ott had been in office just two years when the study was conducted. That hardly seems enough time for the air to clear from any past administrative issues. That means any study would be threatened by past perceptions – the sort of tainting that would make it useless. Unless, of course, Ott thought his team was effective enough to recharge the city in just a relative handful of months.

For his part, spokesman Matthews flatly denied that management had tried to bury the report. Nor, he added, was it a mistake to keep the study private. "We ask questions relative to ethics in the work place every year, and those are available to everyone in the organization," he wrote in an email. "It would be irresponsible to widely distribute the results of any study if we didn't have confidence that the results were valid. We've clearly demonstrated that ethical behavior is vital to the work we do here in Austin, and have reinforced that over the past three years with annual training for all employees, as well as specific training modules for supervisors and managers," he continued. "We've also modified our annual reviews so that every employee is evaluated regarding ethics and integrity, regardless of their position within the organization."

Whatever the case, this isn't the first time Ott and company have had to deal with the perception that they buried a damning study. City observers will remember the KeyPoint report. There, an independent consultant concluded that an Austin Police Department officer used excessive force when he shot and killed Nathaniel Sanders. The most controversial sections of that report were kept confidential until public pressure – and a handy leak – forced management to release it in its entirety. Then-City Attorney David Smith lost his job over that fiasco. But Ott was his boss.

By all appearances, management has yet to learn the most basic lesson that anyone who's ever heard of Woodward and Bernstein probably picked up in a movie theatre: The cover-up is almost always worse than the crime.

Download the 2010 ethics report.

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