Using Performance Audits to Improve Planning

Self-described “contrarian” planner Richard Carson (currently the Director of the Clark County, WA Community Development Department) has a must-read piece in this month’s Planning magazine describing his department’s experience using performance audits to improve service delivery. When hired for the position in 1999, Carson was told that his highest priority was to “change the culture” of the department, which had a reputation for inefficiency and nonresponsiveness to customers. Carson decided that the best approach to achieve cultural change was to bring in a third party to conduct a performance audit, having had positive experiences with that approach earlier in his career. Carson writes:

“This would be one of the most comprehensive performance audits ever done of this kind of agency in the United States. The county budgeted $240,000 to carry it out. That sounds like a lot of money, but my budget is about $12 million annually. The audit amounted to only two percent of total budget, and the recommendations could change the department for years to come.

Everyone knew there were some real risks involved. If such a high-profile and expensive enterprise failed to produce tangible results, there would be serious political repercussions. In other words, I could lose my job.

At the start, we all agreed that the audit was not a witch hunt, but a positive team effort. This basic understanding became the key to the audit’s success. It was critical to eliminate the fear inherent in any such endeavor. In time everyone started to work together to identify substantive, quantifiable improvements.”

He goes on to discuss the recommendations that resulted from the audit, organizational change to achieve matrix management, and outcomes of these processes.

“One immediate result was a promise from the [Board of County Commissioners] that it would consider raising our fees and resources if we followed our own recommendations. We did that, and complaints to the board dropped dramatically. That was the single most important indicator of our success. Within a short time, the board agreed to let us charge fees high enough to recover our full costs.

In January 2004, the county’s major newspaper, the Columbian, carried a positive editorial and a long article entitled “The Office of ‘No’ is Changing.” The article was published just as the county auditor was wrapping up a review of our efforts to implement the performance audit recommendations. Numerous land-use attorneys, developers, environmentalists, and neighborhood activists were quoted saying they had seen significant cultural change in the department.

But it takes more than an audit to create cultural change. Cultural change is about people and their values. In the last five years, I have seen a 50 percent turnover in my management team. As one of my managers pointed out early in the process, “You can either get on the train or get off the train.” There have been a lot of changes in the line staff, too, and we are very careful when hiring. The line staff has become the department’s major source of innovation and change.

I tell my staff never to say “never.” Instead, I tell them to tell the customer that there is always an optionââ?¬â??a conditional use permit, a rezoning, an amendment to the comprehensive plan, or new zoning code language. Such processes may involve a hearings examiner, the planning commission, even the board of county commissioners, but the message is that the applicant always has real options.

We still embrace the idea of continuous improvement. In fact, we just finished beta testing a new streamlined permit process called Express Permitting. The goal is to process major economic development projects, from pre-application conference to actual construction, in 90 days or less.

Ironically, the biggest complaint I get these days, from developers and citizens, is that our pace of change is too fast. We have gone from being an inflexible bureaucracy to one that is too flexible. Now that’s a complaint I can live with.”

Read the whole thing. What Carson describes is an interesting intersection of two concepts central to Reason’s work: performance management as a means to more efficient government, and making the local planning process as flexible and customer-focused as possible. And of course it goes without saying that planning directors nationwide should follow Carson’s lead.