Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Morning Hunt

Coopers Hawk
(Double click to enlarge)
It was the dark shadow at edge of the field below that caught her eye as she made long soaring turns at 200 feet in and out of the morning updrafts. She had been hunting since first light without success and now the sun was bright making any prey more wary and skittish.  Her hunger was growing.  There was little time left until the morning heat would reduce the prospects of a successful hunt to zero.  Anything that looked like food was now getting a closer second look.
The dark figure was next to a decaying log.  It moved. She began a slow gliding turn angling her fully extended wings imperceptibly as she slipped off the cusp of warm rising air that held her aloft.  She raised her head and slightly lowered her legs, increasing the relative angle of her body to the horizon. Her heart quickened as her forward speed slowed high above the field. 
The feathers atop her powerful wings began to flip loosely in the stalling air. Reaching a near stationary hover, she fluttered her wings slightly to steady her position as she retargeted her prey.  The attack would be innate, automatic and precise.
Her plan complete, she tucked her wings and dropped vertically nearly 100 feet from a liquid clear blue sky toward the small furry lump nibbling in the grass at the field’s edge. The attack was out of the sun, silent, sudden and violent, executed with absolute precision.
There was no alarm or even a shriek as three talons, two from one side, one from the other, pierced the heart of the unsuspecting animal, ripping it, dead, in a stir of dust and dirt from the earth where it had lived.
The morning hunt would not go unrewarded.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

SWFWMD Employee Survey: 71% say morale is poor; over 300 say why

There was a time at the Southwest Florida Water Management District when staff members were valued, and whether or not they felt good about their jobs was believed to be strategically important to how well they did them.  It is now as clear as Florida’s blue skies after a summer rainstorm, however, that this fundamental management principle is no longer in play.
And, based upon the ample whispers from under the blanket of fear that now swaddles virtually all of Florida’s environmental regulatory agencies, SWFWMD is not the only public workplace where this abhorrent situation is stifling productivity and motivating some of the best environmental scientists in the world to abandon their public careers for better pay, security and professional satisfaction elsewhere.
It is as if this was the goal of Rick Scott and his henchman, Herschel Vineyard, all along:  to dismantle, discourage, weaken and essentially render regulatory agencies incapable of doing what they were established, authorized and mandated to do by a number of carefully structured Florida laws passed over the last four decades.
It is no wonder that the remaining staffers, though wanting to stay dedicated to what they believe are the higher purposes of their governmental responsibilities, are struggling to find something as fundamental as trust in the new hand-picked Tallahassee minions they now work for.  But after hundreds of firings, no pay increases for years, seeing odd hiring and promotion practices that seem more political than deserved, their faith is clearly waning.  This is a disastrous thing to be happening for any organization, public or private, and especially for organizations that are so strategically important to the future of Florida.
Virtually all of the water management executive directors I have known believed it a personal responsible to build a positive relationship with their staff members.  Staff meetings, employee recognition programs that gave kudos for excellence, and social events like sponsored picnics and other outings (on days off and paid for by volunteer staff contributions) were all considered important team-building exercises that helped keep the complex machinery of a water management district turning.  This is just fundamental management 101. 
I would personally attend meetings with the entire staff of the district at least every quarter at the district’s headquarters in Brooksville and each of its field offices in Tampa, Bartow and Sarasota.  There were many other face to face meetings with the staff, of course, at all levels where I would go with the primary supervisor to answer as well as ask questions of the staff.  If there were rumors that needed to be put to rest, we’d get them out on the table and discuss them straight up.  These were in addition to the normal coordination meetings where supervisors developed and managed teams of scientists working on hundreds of programs and projects directed by the governing board and all in accordance with statutory directives.
It wasn’t always an easy thing to do.  There were times when the questions were uncomfortable for everyone but the staff never hesitated to ask them that I know of and the ED was clearly expected to answer them as forthrightly as possible.  I never saw any hesitation out of fear of retribution to bring up an issue that was important and I know with virtual certainty no one was ever fired for doing so.
With over 700 employees and a monthly governing board agenda of over 70 items that required specific board dispensation, water management is a daunting task where laws are translated into policy and science-based decisions are carried out within a stringent legal framework of rules and legal procedure.  It is daunting also because the decisions could potentially have devastating impacts for private individuals or companies if wrong. 
But all those days are gone it seems.  In a recent survey distributed around the end of January by the management at SWFWMD, a variety of questions were asked of the staff that most, normally I would think, could have been gleaned by supervisors simply talking with their staff directly.  Instead, they put out this survey asking such questions as: How can we improve internal communications?  How often do you receive feedback about your performance from your supervisor?  If the District periodically recognized employees for outstanding work, what would be an appropriate form of recognition?  Where would you prefer to be recognized? What type of Employee Appreciation food activity do you prefer?
I mean are these really questions for an employee survey? Seems to me, any first line supervisor who works with his folks every day would already know these things. And what in the world is Employee Appreciation food activity?
Nevertheless, best I can tell, the survey asked about 40 questions and had over 430 responders. A summary of the responses was provided in a comprehensive 124-page report that revealed what, I’m certain, the ED already suspected but now likely wishes he had tried some other way to verify.
Then in the middle of all this arcane stuff they provide on page 13 a summary of 403 responses to the question, “How would you rate District morale?” Keeping in mind that the total number employees at the district is now down to somewhere around 600, 100 of the respondents (24.8%) said it was “very poor.” 186 (46.2%) said it was “poor” and 87 (21.6%) said it was “adequate.” Of over 430 respondents to the survey, only 28 said it was “good” and 2 said it was “very good.” In other words, over 70% of those who responded are saying morale is poor or very poor.
I’m no statistician and it’s an understatement at best but it sure looks to me like morale at SWFWMD is in the toilet. Is there any other way to look at it? And, given the staff’s reasons as indicated by their other obviously heartfelt responses, it is reasonable to assume the situation can be similarly found across the board within all the other districts and DEP.
When asked, “What is the primary reason for this state of the morale?” staffers gave 307 very specific responses, all of which are detailed on pages 68 through 99 of the report, some 31 sad pages that reveal a staff that is fearful of anything they say, their jobs, executive management, the governing board and the future of water management itself. It reflects an agency in severe decline and the cause can be placed squarely at the feet of a governor who has no regard for natural Florida, has carried out and/or supported massive and damaging actions that are destroying the state’s very ability to assure future generations the legacy of a clean and healthy natural environment.

The survey on which this post was based can be found at this link:

When there, open the document titled:  2013-03-10 SWFWMD Morale Survey Responses FINAL.pdf 

Since this was posted, a “final” final version was received.  It’s title is 2013-03-10 Employee-Opinion-Survey-2013-Report.pdf and can now also be found at 

There should be no differences in the data between the two versions but the presentation of it is substantially “cleaner” and “condensed” in the later version.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Florida Retirement System: an outsider's view

The following note was received in response to my last post pertaining to the Florida Retirement System which was also published in the Tallahassee Democrat.  While a number of responses were received, this seemed to express a general sentiment from an unbiased viewpoint:
Your letter in the Tallahassee Democrat the other day was the first common sense I've seen in print since FRS issues began bubbling a few years ago. This isn't my dogfight but I've followed it with real interest both because pensions, especially defined-benefit plans, matter to me and because the uproar has been an educational look at the weirdness of Florida politics. For example, I was flabbergasted that any legislature would buy into a plan under which employees made no direct, identifiable contribution to their own retirements. Equally astonishing have been the enthusiasm of some legislators to transform the system without all the numbers in hand and the failure of FRS or unions and their members to see that sound numbers were available before the 2013 session. Like pregnancy and childbirth, all of this has been pretty predictable (inevitable?) since the last session. Preoccupation with the 3% withholding to the exclusion of all else has meant that the kid has come home with no diapers in the house. Perhaps more was going on but this is what it looks like from outside.
Legislative moves toward defined-contribution plans aren't confined to Florida but nobody in Tallahassee has mentioned that some other states have explored the alternatives and are moving ahead with repairs to existing defined-benefit plans along the lines you suggest in your letter. Although the deal isn't done, recent news coverage from Montana implies likely passage of a rational, long term fix for existing problems. It's true that Montana, with about one inhabitant for every 19 Floridians and many other significant differences, is different, but the process would work here. Montana still has a biennial legislative session which allowed more time but the essential aspect was collaboration between interim legislative committees, the governor's office, the retirement system(s)*, unions and system beneficiaries, and willingness to meet the costs. The switch to a 401 k plan was judged too costly. (*Montana has a Public Employees' Retirement System and a Teachers' Retirement System which includes university faculty. The piggy banks are different but the problems and solutions were the same.)  Montana salaries and wages in all sectors are lower than in Florida but employees have contributed 7.15% all along and the contribution will increase to 8.15% under the proposed plan. Other changes in vesting, eligibility etc. are the sorts of things you suggested. Montana is fiscally cautious--it was one of only four states in the black a few years ago-- and it does have a stash not available everywhere. Part of the Coal Severance Tax, and some of the interest on the untouchable endowment portion of that fund, are being diverted from existing programs to bolster the retirement systems. However, that never would have happened if employees weren't willing to ante up as well........
    I imagine you're getting responses to your good letter.
    Andy Sheldon

Andy Sheldon is retired and living in Crawfordville, Florida.  He is formerly of Mossoula, Montana where he was a professor at the University of Montana.