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“Blueprint for Reform” details strategies to make County government more efficient and drive down costs


King County Executive
Dow Constantine

“Blueprint for Reform” details strategies to make County government more efficient and drive down costs


King County Executive Dow Constantine today presented a draft strategic plan for the County that calls for driving down the cost of government and improving services through innovative budget strategies, a culture of customer service, and a partnership with employees.


Executive Constantine

King County Executive Dow Constantine today presented a draft strategic plan for the County that calls for driving down the cost of government and improving services through innovative budget strategies, a culture of customer service, and a partnership with employees.

“The usual approach in government is to fund the same programs that were funded the year before. That approach funds effort,” said Constantine. “Our strategic plan says: focus on the results the public wants, then focus on the efforts that deliver those results.”

In a speech before members of the Metropolitan King County Council and other separately elected County officials, the Executive called for changing many of the ways that King County does business, in line with goals he set forth in a draft King County Strategic Plan that he sent to the Council today.

Budget strategies

To implement the Strategic Plan goal of stabilizing the County’s long-term and long-standing structural gap between expenses and the current revenue structure granted by the state, the Executive called for:

  • the convening of a general fund cabinet,
  • a countywide effort to drive down the annual growth in the cost of doing business to the level of background inflation, and
  • discussion of a cap on expenditures when revenues rebound in the future so that the savings could be tapped during recessionary downturns.

“Historically, when our revenues are down, the Executive proposes cuts, and the agencies respond,” said Constantine. “We need every leader whose agency has a stake in the cash-strapped general fund to be at the table, early, discussing the impact of various hard choices on the people we all serve, because the deficit is everybody’s problem – not just the Executive’s, not just the Council’s.”

Among the proposed members of this general fund cabinet would be leaders of the criminal justice agencies – the Sheriff, Prosecuting Attorney, Superior and District Court, and the jail – along with the County Council, the Assessor, the Elections Director, the public health director, community and human services, and the County Administrative Officer who represents the internal support services for all these agencies.

“We will have a number in front of us, for our available general fund. We must all work together to manage to that number,” said Constantine.

The Executive said County government can offer a clear choice to the public: if government can drive down its costs to close to the level of background inflation, then the public and their elected representatives can choose to buy the current level of products and services, or more, by raising revenues – or, he said, the public can ask government to further reduce levels of service.

“The public has made it clear it values criminal justice, public health and human services – and our Strategic Plan affirms this,” said Constantine. “But before any discussion of revenues, I will insist that we first deliver progress toward real reforms and real savings. We must first get our own house in order.”

In advance of the time some point in the future when the economy turns around and revenues rebound, the Executive called for consideration of a cap on spending during the good years, to have the money to carry the county through the down years.

“We must have a discussion in our general fund cabinet of setting a cap on the growth of spending during those good years so we can put those savings into the bank,” said Constantine. “When existing revenue streams rise above the rate of inflation, or some other indicator, cap the growth of expenditures at that indicator and save the rest.”

Constantine said such an expenditure-growth cap and deficit-reserve fund would be above and beyond the permanent rainy-day fund of about $15 million he and other members of the County Council created in 2007.

Customer service reform

In collaboration with employees, Constantine called for what he called “a culture of customer service where every resident, every business, every city and every community is treated as a valued client.”

Customer service under the plan would be made a primary focus for all County employees, with customer service measures for each department. Among the standard expectations based on common courtesy are:

  • Designation of a single point of accountability for each department.
  • Response to all inquiries within 24 hours, and developing a plan to address issues within 72 hours, and
  • Getting back to customers when promised, and keeping them apprised of progress towards resolution toward their inquiry.

Reform of labor relations

As a measure of the importance he places on developing and empowering a quality workforce, the Executive proposed reorganization of the Executive branch to establish a Cabinet-level position for a Director of Labor Relations.

“We will negotiate our labor agreements in a manner that is fair to the taxpayers and fair to our employees, that takes advantage of our employees’ experience and insight and that results in better and more efficient services to the public.”

Labor negotiations are now conducted out of a section within the Human Resources Division of the Department of Executive Services. The new director would report directly to the Executive and the Deputy Executive. Constantine said he would send legislation to the Council for the authority to create the proposed Office of Labor Relations inside his office.

The Executive pledged to involve the Council early in identifying the parameters for the County’s goals and interests in labor policy, and to focus the dynamic in labor talks around common goals.

“Rather than negotiate in public, we will meet with labor at the bargaining table to discuss our shared interests in an efficient and sustainable government,” said Constantine. “We will create an environment where people can do their best work, rather than constantly looking over their shoulder for the next round of layoffs.”

“If there are contractual barriers to the efficient delivery of service, they must be removed. If there are operational practices that do not add value for our customers, they must be changed,” he added.

At the same time, Constantine said he has also taken steps to create a culture of accountability for work now being performed.

“Where a tunneling contractor can’t get the job done, we’ll find someone who can. Where security services don’t respond the way people expect, we will take action,” he said. “I will not defend a status quo that is not working for the people of King County.”

Reform of management of major capital projects

In line with a recommendation last year from the state auditor, the Executive said he will sign an Executive Order next week to implement a unified management system for County operations that sets consistent, comprehensive standards for budgeting, managing, and measuring the performance of major capital construction projects.

“As Executive, I will take bold action when projects need correction, as I did in changing contractors on one of our Brightwater tunnels, but we need a fundamental change at the front end, to catch small problems before they become big ones,” said Constantine. “This reform will provide the tools to provide timely warning to our managers when projects are going off-course, so they can take action to get them back on track.”

Under his order, managers must set a project baseline before moving into detailed design and construction, and then monitor and report performance against that baseline. The changes would ensure managers all speak the same language when communicating results to the Executive, the Council, the Auditor, and the public.

Information would be put online so residents can track projects in their neighborhood. The reform will provide the tools to evaluate the delivery of projects across all County agencies, and where needed, hold agencies accountable.

Procurement and contracting reform

After hearing from the business community that the County’s procurement process is onerous and slow, and raises barriers that are too high for small- and economically-disadvantaged businesses, Constantine vowed to make it easier for firms to do business with King County.

“Over the decades our contracting packages have accumulated pages and pages of outdated forms, affidavits, and boilerplate,” he said.

The Executive said he will sign an Executive Order on Thursday and send legislation to the Council to simplify the procurement process and cut the time it takes to develop and implement contracts. He said the overhaul will strip away a dozen pages of outmoded paperwork, enhance the use of technology, and emphasize user-friendly Requests for Proposals and Invitations to Bid.

Employee participation

As part of his goal of engaging workers in a process of innovation and continuous improvement, the Executive in December called for suggestions from employees on ways to make government more efficient. Constantine today acknowledged the receipt of 67 responses to date and said he will sign an Executive Order next Tuesday implementing one suggestion – to make inquests more efficient by shortening the time and focusing the scope of the fact-finding hearings, while preserving the transparency the public needs in officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths.

The Executive also announced the first winner of a quarterly competition for workers to invite him to “Walk in the Shoes of a County Employee.” From more than 70 submissions, Constantine said he would join Patricia Dougherty at the customer service desk at the Community Service Center in the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.

“I’ll get to see what it’s like to register voters, license pets, issue passports and marriage licenses, and – yes – answer questions from people about their property taxes,” he said.

The King County Strategic Plan was legislated by the County Council in November 2008 to develop a comprehensive countywide strategy for the future. Based on extensive outreach and research, that plan addresses key concerns identified by county residents and proposes strategies to improve county services, customer service and long-term financial management. An initial public review draft was completed in November, 2009, under former Executive Kurt Triplett, but upon taking office Constantine revisited the draft so that his administration could have more input into the strategies and develop items for immediate action. The Executive will transmit the final document to the County Council by May 1 of this year.

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King County Executive
Dow Constantine
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