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Former city official recounts Ott’s anger over 2010 ethics survey

Thursday, May 9, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A former high level City of Austin employee tells In Fact Daily that at a management meeting in late 2010 where the results of a city ethics study were revealed, City Manager Marc Ott became very angry and “lost it.” That report has only recently become public.


According to the source, who requested anonymity, Ott told the consulting firm – which was hired to conduct a baseline study of the city’s ethics programs – that  the report “could be reported differently” to offer a more positive spin on its findings.


The 2010 study offers an extremely negative look at how city employees see the state of the city’s ethics programs. It also suggests that staff’s view of management is far below that of their respective peers.


About 41 percent of city employees responded to the questions in the study. That figure reflects a substantial sample size.


The source said, “The consultant was instructed to rework (it), and primarily we’re talking about the executive summary because there is nothing he can rework with the data – it is what it is,” the source said.


They added that the consultant had presented a similarly derogatory report to another city where, the source said, “They had a similar reaction of ‘Oh my God, what will people think?’ and that city had chosen to say ‘We’re going to accept this report as factual and baseline and here is what we are going to do to improve the situation.’” According to the source, that did not happen in Austin.


“I’ve never seen (Ott) get that upset,” the source later said.


In Fact Daily obtained a copy of the 2010 report, prepared by the well-regarded ethics consulting firm Ethics Resource Center. It offers a scathing look at how city employees viewed the ethics culture of the city and the management team that runs it. It is unclear whether the copy of the report obtained by In Fact Daily is the original or a rewritten version.


When asked Wednesday afternoon for his recollections of the firm’s interactions with city management, ERC’s Nick Fetzer told In Fact Daily that, “At this point, I can’t comment.”


The source requested anonymity based on a fear of retaliation. “It’s an incredibly fear-based organization,” they said. “This is an important story, and it should have been told a long time ago.”


The study confirms the former city employee’s worries about retaliation. “Of those who observed misconduct and then reported it, 24 percent indicated that they experienced retaliation, compared to 20 percent in the Local Average and 17 percent in the All Govt Average,” according to the report. “ ERC (the consultant)  research shows a connection between retaliation and reduced reporting of misconduct.”


In Fact Daily requested to speak with Ott. However, the city’s Communications Director Doug Matthews returned a reporter’s call. He disputed the source’s version of events. He said that the consultant was not present at a meeting he attended where the survey was discussed. Matthews added that several assistant city managers were also present and that then-city Integrity Officer John Steiner presented the study. He notes that he does not believe that there was another such meeting.


Matthews also objects to the characterization that Ott “lost it” during the meeting. “I think the manager and a number of (assistant city managers) were upset with what came back,” Matthews told In Fact Daily. He characterized that feeling as “disappointment.”


Meanwhile, the subject of the study surfaced at Wednesday’s Audit and Finance Committee hearing. There, the head of City Auditor Ken Mory’s investigations unit, Jason Hadavi, brought up segments of it after Council members asked for statistics about the subject.


Hadavi set them up against metrics from a series of annual Listening to the Workforce surveys conducted by the city. Council Member Bill Spelman summed the entire picture. “The ERC’s language in the report is rather blunt and suggests that we are not doing as well as the average local government,” he said. “It seems to me that there is at least a prima facie case that we should be doing a lot better than we are.”


Council members also wondered why the report took three years to make its way to the public eye. “I would like to get an answer to the question…why this wasn’t more broadly disseminated, especially to the Council offices and department heads, and others who might have benefitted from it,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo.


Tovo referenced what Steiner reported as a $40,000 price tag for the study. “It’s a pretty costly undertaking.”


Matthews told In Fact Daily that city management had some concerns about the methodology of the study, and that they were not allowed to weigh in on the findings before it was finalized. “There were a number of things that caused some concern, and that came from the ACMs as well,” he said.


As for why Council members hadn’t seen the report until this spring, Matthews said that management never considered the document complete. “We asked them to go back and provide some answers about the methodology,” he said.


That, Matthews says, never happened. He wasn’t immediately sure why.


Human Resources department head Mark Washington also raised questions about the study’s methodology during Wednesday’s Audit and Finance Committee hearing. There, Council Member Bill Spelman, a professor at the University of Texas, added an academic note about study methodology.


“I’m an academic,” Spelman said. “We do methodology up one side and down the other. No study is ever good enough, including the best thing I ever did…But it’s still useful information – especially if it is telling you things you think you might know already.”


In that regard, Spelman appeared to refer to a collection of annual data collected for years by the city through workforce perception studies. Here, he pointed to a flat trend that goes back as far as 2000. “About half the people think that they can report without retaliation, about half don’t think so or are not convinced yet,” he said.


The ERC study also addresses that subject. “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,” the study reads.


“Associations (have been) found between certain types of retaliation and the attendant strengths of top management, supervisor, and coworker ethical cultures,” it later continues. “Although questions about the type of retaliation were not asked in the Austin survey, where differences appear in the strengths of manager versus coworker cultures, Austin might consider deeper investigation into the data to uncover associations between other behaviors and outcomes that might be affecting the strengths of the component ethical cultures.”


In Fact Daily’s source insists that some of those present argued for Ott to release the report as it was. “I said, ‘I think it would be a horrible mistake to bury this report,’” they continued. “And I think others agreed that would then feed in to the fact that the top management team lacked integrity. That having  asked the employees what they thought, we were obligated to come back and tell the employees what the results were.”


The source said that Ott didn’t argue the point, but pointed out that the study “never got released.”

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