City Hall

A recent survey showed there is room for improvement in Aspen City Hall communications.

Given a list of five options, Aspen city employees who participated in a recent survey overwhelmingly indicated that “transparency driven by leadership” would be their preferred way of improving the municipal government employee experience through internal communications.

Only 50 employees responded to the voluntary survey, which is part of a larger internal communications project that aims “to foster a collaborative, cohesive and transparent workplace and culture,” according to a report of survey results dated April 3.

The city has 300 full-time workers and 650 total employees. Many jobs are seasonal. Interim city manager Sara Ott said any employee could have responded to the survey.

The “transparency driven by leadership” option was chosen by 61 percent of respondents. Specifically, the question asked, “If you could do one thing to improve the employee experience at the city through internal communications, what would it be?”

“Clear, early communication on important topics is highly valuable to employees. A clear articulation of the organization’s mission, vision and values as well as a leadership-driven effort to integrate them through the organization is paramount,” the report surmises.

Fifteen percent of respondents chose the “feedback resulting in action” answer to the same question.

“Employees lamented that previous feedback processes that took significant time, vulnerability and thoughtfulness on the part of staff never seemed to result in any change or noticeable outcome. If anything did come out of those processes they were not well communicated back to all employees,” the report states.

Ott said Friday that she directed staff to conduct the survey in March to gather information for a project team that will develop an internal communications plan. She explained that the survey was a small piece of a greater effort aimed at improving communications at city hall.

In January, Ott was named interim city manager following the resignation of Steve Barwick, who held the top spot in Aspen government for 19 years. A majority of Aspen City Council asked for Barwick to step down during a Jan. 7 executive session.

Barwick’s departure followed the resignation of Barry Crook, assistant city manager, and controversies relating to various government initiatives such as the mobility lab experiment, a new city office building and a public-private partnership to build affordable housing.

“As an organization and a community, we’re going through significant transitions right now,” Ott said. “One of the things that I felt was really important was that all voices in our organization have an opportunity to be heard.”

The respondents to the voluntary survey, she said, were “anonymous for me. I didn’t request any information about who the individuals were. I didn’t think that was necessary right now. I just wanted a larger pulse of where people are: What do they think are the most critical issues.”

She described the survey as one step she’s taken internally, among many, “to establish a stronger relationship between the leadership of the organization and those at all levels of our organization.”

Improvements in communication between city leaders and employees will lead to better collaboration, which in turn will improve services to the city’s residents, Ott said.

Another survey question asked respondents to identify “areas of improvement that could make working for the city a better experience.”

Thirty-three percent indicated improvements in benefits, pay and flexibility as a strong priority. The second most-popular response, at 22 percent, was “addressing organizational silos.”

“The sense of secrecy and lack of disclosure across departments, and particularly from senior management to the rest of employees, is an area that requires improvement,” the summary of survey results states.

The response relating to “organizational silos” was followed closely by “accountability and clear expectations set by leadership and followed at all levels” (20 percent) and “valuing employees by improving systems” (18 percent).

Employees who completed the survey “consistently noted the lack of organizational direction in terms of an established, embodied and integrated mission, vision or values,” the summary says.

In an explanation of the “employee values” response, the report adds: “Employees are overworked without appropriate compensation in some cases, without regular raises, and survey respondents identified little recognition of the good work they do by management. The breakdown in city processes and communications with the public contribute to internal communication and effectiveness breakdowns.”  

When employees were queried on why they like working for the city, 35 percent suggested it was because of the organization itself and the people within it. Thirty percent cited the employee benefits and 24 percent indicated that they enjoy being a public servant.

“Since I’ve become interim city manager, I’ve specifically devoted resources to internal communications that are focused on how we break down some of these barriers,” Ott said. “Whether they are real or perceived barriers, they need to be addressed to be able to stay focused on the community’s goals.

“This survey is one of many different feedback systems I’ve put in place in the last few months to be able to give employees venues to share what they think we’re doing well and where we could do better,” Ott continued. “Any progressive organization should be doing this.”

Alissa Farrell, city human resources director and interim assistant city manager, is leading the project team that is analyzing internal communications and implementing improved systems, Ott said. The process, which she described as a “journey,” will involve focus groups and department visits.

The goal is to create a working environment in city hall where everyone feels welcome, she said, adding that she’s already seen an upswing in positive communications among municipal employees.

“I’m confident that just by dedicating some resources to this, we will see some great benefits,” Ott said.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.