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Blueprint for Reform: Working Together for One King County


King County Executive
Dow Constantine

Blueprint for Reform: Working Together for One King County


It was just 105 days ago, right here, that I chaired my last council meeting. The next day I was honored to take the helm of this, one of the nation’s largest, most diverse and vibrant counties — one with a history of innovation and transformation, and a future with boundless potential.


It’s good to be back in a familiar setting among colleagues and friends.

It was just 105 days ago, Mr. Chair, that I chaired my last council meeting and then handed you the gavel. The next day I was honored to take the helm of this, one of the nation’s largest, most diverse and most vibrant counties — one with a history of innovation and transformation, and a future with boundless potential.

I’d like to first acknowledge my family—who are sitting in the front row. Also joining us today are members of my transition team and of senior county staff.

Between here, and our vibrant and sustainable community of the future, are a host of immediate and long-term challenges.

We must invest, without delay, in a 21st century transportation infrastructure that helps shape land use and create prosperity as our region evolves.

We must protect, in an era of diminished revenue, our health and the most vulnerable in our communities.

We must maintain, in the face of cost pressures, excellence in public safety and justice for all.

We must partner, despite antiquated political divisions, with our cities and regional governments, business and labor leaders, to focus on creating jobs and opportunity.

These are the goals for what my administration will deliver.

Today I want to share with you how I intend to deliver on those goals, by sending the Council a draft of our first-ever King County Strategic Plan.

This plan is the blueprint for reform. It has four elements.   

  • Service excellence,
  • A quality workforce,
  • Wise financial stewardship, and
  • Robust public engagement.

This is not just my plan, of course. This is a countywide plan … the result of extensive outreach. Everyone in this room: employees, the Council, the separately elected officials, and the public have helped bring it together.

First, our reforms will focus on SERVICE EXCELLENCE. 

Crowd at the SpeechIn collaboration with our employees, we will establish a culture of customer service where every resident, every business, every city and every community is treated as a valued client.

We will create standard expectations, based on common courtesy.

Things like designating a single point of contact and a single point of accountability for each department.

Things like responding to all inquiries within 24 hours, and being ready to address issues within 72 hours.

Things like keeping promises: when we tell you we’re going to get back to you – we do it, and if we don’t have all the answers, we call anyway and tell you when we will.

I reached out to our business community and two messages were loud and clear: They said our procurement process is onerous and slow, and the barriers are too high for small - and economically-disadvantaged businesses in our community.

I checked, and found that over the decades our contracting packages have accumulated pages and pages of outdated forms, affidavits, and boilerplate. Departments complain it can take six months to hire a specialist they need immediately for a project.

Starting this week, we are going to make it easier to do business with King County.

On Thursday I will sign an Executive Order and send the Council legislation that will simplify our procurement process and cut the time it takes to develop and implement contracts.  We will:

  • strip away a dozen pages of outmoded paperwork;
  • enhance our use of technology; and
  • emphasize user-friendly Requests for Proposals and Invitations to Bid.   

My order will also support new opportunities for small- and economically-disadvantaged businesses.

Second, we will develop and empower a QUALITY WORKFORCE to join us in the process of innovation and continuous improvement.

As our Deputy Executive is fond of saying, our most valuable asset lies in the space between our employees’ ears. They’re the ones on the front lines. They know how things get done and how they can be improved.

So we asked for ideas. We opened an employee suggestion box.

  • From Judge Vicki Seitz: “Make sure we collect on all bail bonds forfeited by defendants, before they expire.”
  • From Doug Miller at Metro: “Invite companies to install solar panels over our big bus bases, and share some of the electricity they generate.”
  • And I received this: “Find efficiencies in the way inquests are being performed.”  

We looked into that, and next Tuesday I will sign an Executive Order that preserves the transparency the public needs in officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, while shortening the time and focusing the scope of these fact-finding hearings.

I launched a friendly competition for employees to invite me to “walk in their shoes.” I received more than 70 great invitations. I selected one from Patricia Dougherty in Records and Licensing.

Patricia invited me to work in the Community Service Center at 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. Patricia calls customer service “a bridge to understanding and respect of one another.” She guarantees I will come away “feeling recharged.”

Thanks to all who submitted suggestions. We’ll pick another winner next quarter.

We must engage the limitless creativity of employees like Patricia, Doug, and Judge Seitz. We must engage in a culture of continuous improvement in the way we deliver products and services.

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.

The models for success are already in place. Here’s something I was astonished to learn. King County will soon be running three regional wastewater plants with the same number of employees it took to run two plants just a decade ago.

How is that possible? Through an innovative Productivity Initiative that engages employees as partners in creating efficiencies and driving down costs.

Over a seven-year period, our wastewater workers:

  • Saved 2-million dollars by purchasing the trucks used to haul biosolids rather than renting them from the hauler.
  • Saved 4-million dollars by using reclaimed water for plant operations instead of paying for drinkable water,
  • Saved 6-million dollars by harnessing bio-gas to generate heat and electricity.

We must measure and quantify these process improvements in order to express to the people of King County how much value has been gained.

At the same time, we must also create a culture of accountability for the jobs we do.

From the top down, where change is needed, we will make it. 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. I will not defend a status quo that is not working for the people of King County.

Third in our blueprint for reform is the wise FINANCIAL STEWARDSHIP of the public’s money.

This financial stewardship takes several forms. King County builds an incredible array of capital infrastructure projects we rely on to get to work, keep us safe, and protect our environment. Taxpayers and ratepayers want these projects delivered on time and on budget.

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.

Next week, I will sign an Executive Order that sets consistent, comprehensive standards for budgeting, managing, and measuring the performance of our capital projects.

Under this order, managers must set a baseline before moving into detailed design and construction. They must monitor and report performance against that baseline. This reform will create the tools to provide timely warning to the Council when projects are going off-course, and take action to get them back on track.

These tools will complement the oversight for high-risk projects adopted by the Council last week. I thank Council Chair Bob Ferguson for his leadership on this important measure.

Central to our financial stewardship is a change in the way we approach our budget. I’m pleased to introduce you today to our new budget director. Please welcome Dwight Dively to King County. I am giving Dwight the task of leading us toward a different way of thinking about our budgets, to put us a sound financial footing, now and into the future.

I intend to convene a cabinet of all the offices and agencies that are supported by the general fund.

Historically, when our revenues are down, the Executive proposes cuts, and the agencies respond.

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.

This general fund cabinet will provide a seat at the table for the criminal justice agencies – the sheriff, the prosecutor, the judges and the jail – the 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.

Our job will, in a way, be simple. We will have a number in front of us: Our available general fund. We must all work together to manage to that number, in line with our Strategic Plan.

The usual approach in government is to fund the same programs that we funded the year before. This approach funds effort. Our strategic plan says: focus on results, the results the public wants, then focus on the efforts shown to deliver those results.

As Executive I will do my part. I have ordered my budget office to review our internal service costs and how they are allocated to agencies.

Now, what should that number be for the general fund budget?

I think it helps if we break this into manageable pieces: We must start by driving down the annual growth in the cost of doing business to the level of background inflation.

You know well that we have a structural imbalance. Our single largest source of revenue is limited by statute to 1-percent growth per year, plus the taxes from new construction, when there is any. That’s close to a flat line. In fact, total general fund tax revenues have actually declined the past two years.

On the other hand, our cost of doing business goes up 5 to 6 percent per year. Somewhere in between there’s the level of background inflation, the price increase you see when you to go our grocery store. That’s the number to which I propose our general fund cabinet must manage.

But below that line there is still the gap between inflation and revenues. Here’s the compact we can offer: if government can drive down its costs to close to that middle line of inflation, then the public then has an honest choice:

The public and their elected representatives can choose to buy the current level of products and services, or more, by raising revenues. Or the public can ask us to further reduce the level of service. The choice is that clear.

The public has made it clear it values criminal justice, values public health and values human services – and our Strategic Plan and the public outreach that we did confirms this. 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.

To have a county government that is sustainable – not just for 2011 or 2012 but for the long term – there is one more idea we must examine. We must consider a cap on spending in the good years to have the money to carry us through the down years.

You’ve seen the recessionary pattern: our costs go up, our revenues go up far less, or even decline, and so to balance the budget we cut services. And, the next year, the cycle repeats itself.

At some point this economy will turn around and revenues will rebound. When that happens, the temptation is to spend that money and restore all of those cuts.

In our general fund cabinet I will ask how we can set a cap on the growth of spending during those good years so that we can put those savings into the bank.

When existing revenue streams rise above the rate of inflation, or some other indicator, cap the growth of expenditures and save the rest.

This will require discipline. There is pressure every budget season to fund real, urgent needs. We will see it this fall.

But by having the rigor to create this expenditure growth cap and “deficit reserve fund” – a reserve above and beyond our permanent rainy-day fund that you and I created in 2007 – we will have the resources to weather recessionary storms.

Rather than a harrowing roller-coaster ride, we can ensure our public smooth sailing.

Under the current revenue structure granted by the state, this is the path to long-term stability and sustainability for King County. I look forward to working with the Council’s budget chair, Julia Patterson, on these and other innovative ideas.

To achieve these reforms, we must win the participation and partnership of our workers and their representatives. 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.

As a measure of the value I place on our workers, in a few weeks I will be sending you legislation enabling me to reorganize the Executive branch. I will be proposing to establish a Cabinet-level position for a Director of Labor Relations who reports directly to me and the Deputy Executive. In this significant reform the members of this Council are essential partners.

As a former Councilmember I know how frustrating it is to be handed a labor proposal with which I had nothing to do … and to be given only the choice to vote it up or down … knowing that to reject it could lead to a worse deal for the taxpayers.

My labor director will meet early and often with this Council. We will discuss the parameters for our negotiations and identify County goals and interests. 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.

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.

Finally, our strategic plan calls for PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT that informs, involves and empowers people and community.

The partnerships we make will be a critical tool for changing the way we do business.

During last fall’s campaign I pledged to visit every city in the county and meet with residents and leaders to learn how we can work together for one King County.  In my visits I’m encouraged by the people I meet: Elected officials and folks on the street. So many have come up to say, “We know you can do it.”

I spent a day in the Snoqualmie Valley, where I saw the preservation of historic buildings and the opportunities for tourism. We talked about simple ways to help them bring thousands of visitors to regional attractions in their cities to boost their economy.

This spirit of partnership extends to our other regional efforts:

For our transportation future – a Regional Transit Task Force willing to put aside political divisions and think creatively about how we can best deliver service to all parts of the county within the resources we have.

For jail planning – working with cities to ensure that we have the right amount of jail capacity – not demanding the county be the provider, not insisting that cities go it alone, but doing what works best and makes the most sense for our shared constituency.

For animal services – working with cities and community organizations to reach a statement of common interests around a new, humane regional model – again, doing what makes the most sense.

For our rural areas – regular meetings with rural city mayors and Unincorporated Area Councils to strengthen our service delivery, and work with our customers on how we can change the practices in our land use permitting process.

Last week I appointed a new director of Development and Environmental Services to lead reform of the County’s permitting and fee structure. In his first week he’s met with our front-line staff and learned that the kind of service DDES staff WANTS to provide matches the kind of service our customers want to RECEIVE. So this year, we will be working with our customers to repair what is broken in the department and allow those employees to deliver the high-quality services customers want. And by April 15, I will be sending you a strategy for revising our fee structure for permits, perhaps with an eye to moving away from the current model based on hourly rates. We will not be shy about proposing whatever change is needed.

We have much work ahead, but through strategic thinking and careful planning, we can rise to the challenge.  I want to hear from you, and from our public, on our draft Countywide Strategic Plan. I wanted to make sure you had this draft early, before I transmit the final document on May First.

Looking back on these first 100 days in office, I am particularly proud having succeeded in putting together a remarkable leadership team. A team that will help us – the executive and the council – tackle the enormous challenges we face. Led by Deputy Executive Fred Jarrett, this diverse group of smart, capable, accomplished professionals will be the edge we need.

With your help and commitment — as true partners — we can create results we can see, with vibrant and sustainable communities in every part of King County. But only by getting our government on sound footing can we protect our values and make our vision a reality.

Only by innovating and adapting can we continue protecting basic services, promote equity and social justice, and renew our commitment to people, environment, economy and infrastructure.

Only if we have the discipline and focus to reform our practices and change the way we do business, can we maintain safety and justice, protect our health and our environment, develop our human potential, and grow as an economy.

With a blueprint for reform, and the determination to work together to see the job through, King County can emerge from these challenging times stronger and with our best days ahead of us.

Thank you very much.

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King County Executive
Dow Constantine
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