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