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Billable Hours in the Federal Government—A Novel Concept!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Willie Lee Patterson III
March 7, 2022

FreshBooks defines “billable hours” as the amount of time spent working on business projects that can be charged to a client according to an agreed upon hourly rate. Businesses, agencies, entrepreneurs and freelancers all frequently use billable hours to charge clients for the services they provide. To charge billable hours, workers need to track the amount of time they spend on each of their clients’ projects per day. 

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Real Estate Division utilizes this “billable hours” concept. We have customers (partners/stakeholders), and they provide administrative fees (labor) for our services. You will not find many federal agencies with this labor arrangement. The mindset of a billable hour is not the norm in the public sector. Employees are assigned partner/stakeholder projects to work on each year with an anticipated labor amount to be paid by our partner/stakeholder.  

The “commitment” from the Real Estate USACE staff is to provide excellent customer care and execute products in a timely manner, within budgetary constraints. No stereotypical bureaucrat can work in the Real Estate Division. We have a client base that expects us to deliver on our commitment. There are 30+ USACE Real Estate Divisions nationwide, and therefore it is possible for a customer to reach out to another Real Estate USACE district to provide e-services, impacting our income base (billable hours). Building a customer care mindset in a public agency to ensure our partner/stakeholder base is satisfied with the management and execution of their real estate leases is vital to the USACE Real Estate Division. 

This article will detail the leadership approach I employed while serving as Chief of the Real Estate Division, Mobile District, from 2004-2020 to focus our staff and ensure we delivered quality products with a customer care focus. I termed this concept “G.E.T.P.I.E.”: 

G-GOALS: The fundamental role of a leader is to influence staff to achieve a common goal. I am a firm believer that we must establish goals to ensure we are effectively responding to our partners and stakeholders (P/S). We had quarterly lease actions to execute for our P/S. We developed goals each quarter based on mission actions given to us by our P/S. It is critical that teammates understand quarterly goals and are held accountable. I believe “you inspect what you expect.” That became my theme as a leader and the staff learned to expect tracking of goals to ensure we did not lose our focus. 

E-Execution: With quarterly goals established to meet P/S expectations, we then developed an execution plan. Each mission assignment had a goal of either executing a new lease, renewing a lease or terminating a lease. Each action had milestones to ensure actions were tracked throughout the business process. The path to execution required teamwork as our team had to secure billable hours for the budget section to set up and process payments for our lease actions. Andrew Carnegie said, “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Successful execution requires collaboration. We included our budget analyst in our review of goals to ensure they were also aware of our goals and execution plans for each quarter, and to ensure that monthly lease payments were processed in a timely manner. Inclusion is essential to organization success.  

T-Time Management: The ability to manage our time to ensure mission goals were executed as planned was a major factor in our success. William Shakespeare once said, “Better to be three hours too soon, than a minute too late.” Our ability to provide leased space when required by a customer (P/S) was essential. We aggressively managed our timelines to ensure we delivered leasing product on time and within budgetary constraints. For example, no P/S was willing to pay for space we were told to terminate. And certainly, when space was required for occupancy, the P/S expected no delays. 

P-Performance: Our customer satisfaction was evaluated annually. P/S measured our performance. “Did we do what we committed to do?” and, “Did we keep them abreast and involved in the process?” were some of the questions they evaluated. Jack Welch, former General Electric Chief once said, “You get what you measure.” Our ability to meet or exceed customer expectations allowed us to sustain our business with our P/S. 

I-Invest: If you want to sustain your staff, you must invest in their careers. The training of staff, the ensuring of proper resources such as good laptops, cell phones, and printers and providing a healthy work environment were all critical investments. Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Apple said, “Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer. I think you build one with your employees first.”  

E-Enjoyment: Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell said it best, “It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between 9 and 5. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us.” If your staff does not enjoy the mission, you must evaluate their enjoyment deficit and provide the correct stimulus if possible, or determine if you have a miserable person that does not fit the organization. Either way, you must respond to the fact that your employee is not enjoying the mission! 

Our GET PIE mantra has allowed USACE Real Estate, Mobile District to gain additional partners and stakeholders! We expanded our leasing business line, and acquired additional customers, which increased our billable hours.  

Author: Dr. Willie L. Patterson III is a Part-Time Professor with The University of South Alabama where he teaches Leadership in the Master of Public Administration program and recently returned to work for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers with the Mobile District Real Estate Division part-time as a Project Manager. [email protected] 

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