How a Washington County Gets the Most Benefits from Technology Projects

The King County Council requires that a Benefit Achievement Plan be developed for all technology projects prior to being funded.

by Jennifer Giambattista, principal legislative analyst, King County, Wash. / May 22, 2017

With budget cuts looming in the face of reduced state and federal funding, local governments across the country are looking for ways to stretch their dollars more than ever before.

In 2013, local officials in King County, Wash., began to ask whether their $250 million in current technology investments were truly leading to better services for the public, increased efficiencies and more accountability from its 20 departments and over 13,000 employees at that time.

As the regional government for more than 2 million people living in or around Seattle, the King County Council knew it had to get creative. With dozens of technology projects on the horizon, council members tasked staff with developing an innovative approach to maximizing the benefits of these investments.

The result?

Today the council requires that a Benefit Achievement Plan (BAP) be developed for all technology projects prior to being funded. Three years later, county departments are maximizing their technology investments to improve services like never before.

Each of the five steps of the BAP are described below.

Step One: Identify Programmatic Outcomes from Technology Projects

The BAP requires the department proposing a project to describe how the technology investment will improve internal operations, services to customers or cost savings, or reduce the risk of system failures. Most projects have benefits in more than one category. For example, a project that reduces the risk of system failure can also be leveraged to improve operations. Rather than describe all benefits, departments are asked to focus on the high-level benefits.

Tips for Maximizing the Benefits from Technology Projects

1) Engage both the technology and business staff early to identify how the project can improve internal and customer services.
2) Identify a project sponsor who is accountable for achieving the benefits.
3) Describe the benefits in easy-to-understand, non-technical language.
4) Focus on the most valuable benefits, rather than tracking every small improvement.
5) Identify any operational changes necessary to fully achieve benefits from technology projects.
6) Measure outcomes, not the process improvement.
7) Set targets for when benefits will be achieved.
8) Regularly review the project for progress in achieving benefits.

For most departments, reporting on the anticipated project outcomes has required a shift in how they describe the benefits of the project. Early in the process, most departments were describing process improvements and technology changes, not outcomes. Process improvements describe a change in a process, whereas outcomes focus on what happens as a result of the change. For example, if a project will speed up an internal process, whether that efficiency is a process improvement or an actual benefit/outcome depends on how that efficiency is used. The benefit happens when the customer is either getting served faster, or the county is able to do more with the same number of or fewer resources. Similarly, when projects deliver more or better information, the additional information is not necessarily a benefit if that information is not used to improve internal operations or services to the public.

Departments are discouraged from promising benefits that cannot be measured. For example, it would be difficult to measure whether a public health technology investment actually improved public health. However, the department could measure whether medical staff had access to more information and used it to make more informed decisions regarding a patient’s medical care.

To complete the BAP, a department’s business and technology staff need to closely collaborate in order to understand how the technology investment can improve services. This upfront collaboration allows departments to identify any operational barriers early in project planning and structure the project to achieve the benefits. For those projects where it is not possible to identify the expected improvements up front, departments are asked to commit to integrating benefit planning into their project implementation plan and report back as they identify the benefits they are seeking.

Step Two: Identify How to Measure the Improved Outcomes

The next step in the BAP is identifying how the department will measure whether the expected benefits are achieved. Prior to the BAP process, measuring progress was limited to traditional metrics used for capital projects: scope, schedule and budget. There was limited, if any, information on whether the benefits of the project had been achieved.

Following the old adage “you get what you measure,” the council asked departments to measure improvements to programs in the areas of customer service, internal operations, reducing system failures and cost savings. Most departments were able to easily identify how to measure cost savings or a reduction in risk because budget savings can be tracked and risk reduction frequently occurs simply by replacing outdated equipment. However, measuring improvements to internal or external services was more challenging because those improvements can be more difficult to quantify.

As part of the BAP process, departments are encouraged to look for a commonsense way to assess whether service improvements have been achieved. Scientific studies with control groups or expensive measurement efforts are not necessary to determine whether benefits have been achieved. Since the council is looking for programmatic benefits, not technical indicators, it should be program managers who identify metrics. To identify metrics, managers can ask, “How would I know as a manager whether the operational improvements have been achieved?”

Often, seeking information from the users of the systems is sufficient to know if benefits are achieved. For example, one of the stated benefits of a new case management system is to make it easier for prosecutors to manage their cases. Rather than do an in-depth analysis of case outcomes, a simple survey of prosecutors can give the council information on whether case management has improved.

For those projects intending to improve external services, measuring customer satisfaction was critical. By establishing up front that customer satisfaction will be measured, departments are incentivized to actively engage with those stakeholders. For example, the Transit Division plans to survey bus riders on their satisfaction with a new application. So prior to designing the application, the division is more likely to engage those riders to ensure it will meet their needs.

Once measures are identified, departments establish a baseline so that the council knows the degree to which improvements are expected. To determine the baseline, departments often had to learn more about the current status of the service and processes than they had previously done. This baseline information can also be valuable in designing the solution.

Step Three: Set Targets

The next step in the process is for departments to set targets on the level of benefits the project is expected to achieve and when those benefits will be achieved. Target setting provides an opportunity for all stakeholders to agree on the level of benefits expected from the technology investment. When all stakeholders share a common understanding of the benefit of the project, it avoids mismatched expectations between stakeholders.

Examples of expected outcomes:

Project Name Benefit Measure and Target
Designated Mental Health Professional Tablets External: More time in the field with clients Reduce number of times staff return to office to one time in seven days
Systems Management Tools Internal: Less system outages Reduce number of major outages by 30 percent
Online Archives Collection Management System External: Access to online archives 80 percent of customers satisfied with new online tool
Parks Facilities Scheduling System Replacement External: Online access to scheduling 75 percent of park users are satisfied with new scheduling system
Tablets for Assessor Internal: Get more inspections done Increase parcel inspections per appraiser by 5 percent
Sheriff’s Regional Identification Project Internal: Officers have better information Officers can receive suspect fingerprint identification from patrol car within two minutes

 

Step Four: Identify Who Is Responsible for Achieving the Benefit

In the past, accountability for achieving project goals was often assumed to be the responsibility of the project manager. But many times the project manager went on to the next project soon after the technical project implementation, leaving no leadership for achieving the operational and customer benefits that take time to realize.

The project benefits will often require process change beyond the authority and time frame of the technical team. So the council now requires departments to identify a high-level manager or department director who will be accountable for achieving the benefits of the project.

Step Five: Reporting

Previously, the council had no easy way to know whether the investments it had funded achieved the anticipated benefits. Standard “close-out” reports were focused on spending and schedule, which while critical to know, did not reveal whether the benefits of the project had been achieved. Now departments report annually, using the metrics they have identified, on whether the project has achieved its benefits.

Reporting on project benefits can extend beyond the “go-live” date of implementing the technology because it often takes time for the department to realize the operational improvements from the technology. With the BAP process, departments are asked to continue to report annually on the status of the benefits until the benefit has been achieved or the department determines it is not possible to achieve the benefit.

With the implementation of the BAP process for all technology projects, the council now receives the information it needs to evaluate the benefits of a technology project and assess whether those benefits have been achieved. For departments, the BAP process provides a framework for leveraging the technology investment to improve services wherever feasible.

Jennifer Giambattista is a principal legislative analyst with the King County Council. She advises the council on all budget requests for technology projects. She has reviewed over 150 technology projects.

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