A New Planning Tool: Performance Auditing
(Presented at the national conference of the American Planning
Association in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 11, 2001)
By Richard H. Carson
In the last decade much has been made about "reinventing government." However, the quest for continuous improvement in planning agencies is a difficult one. How can local planners improve the cost-efficiency of our processes when public policy is often created by an inherently inefficient democratic process?
One ways to overcome these inefficiencies is to fix the problem by using a performance audit after the fact. A performance audit is a management tool that uses an independent and systematic examination of an organization's performance that seeks to improve the organization's accountability and efficiency.
As the director of Clark County's Department of Community Development, I was charged by the county commission with making the department more responsive and efficient. It was a big order to fill. The department is responsible for most of the county's civil regulations. This includes long range planning; the review of all residential, commercial and industrial development projects; building and fire marshal inspections; code enforcement; and even animal control. The department 120 employees undertake over 100,000 separate actions annually with a budget of around $10 million.
Luckily, when I started work as the department director, so did a progressive and newly elected county auditor. He had an interest in doing performance auditing of county agencies. I had participated in performance audits in the past and felt they were a useful management tool, so I asked him to make us his first performance audit.
In February of 2000, the county auditor hired the firm of Citygate. The audit team conducted stakeholder interviews, an employee survey and a customer survey to identify the basic issues and concerns. They also did a detailed analysis of our financial, management and regulatory processes. For several months they would come and go talking to staff about how we did our work.
The good news was that the customer surveys confirmed that people believed the employees were talented and hardworking. In fact, they gave a report card grade of "B" for courtesy. The bad news was we got several "Ds", the worst being a "D-" for not understanding the private sector. We got a "C-" for our overall performance.
Going through an audit is like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. No one likes to do it. But you know you are healthier because of it. The audit gave the employees the chance to be proactive and to stop being defensive. We now had a plan of action. In fact, we started implementing the audit recommendations before the audit was over. The auditors complained to the county commissioners - with tongue in cheek - that we moved too quickly that it was hard to keep up with us. And they were right. The audit was completed and presented to the Board of County Commissioners in December 2000. There were 44 specific recommendations that are being implemented by the department's new 5-Year Strategic Plan. Many of the recommendations addressed very basic problems:
- No one calls me back. Every person in the department - including me - starting keeping phone logs. We set a target and achieved a 24-hour call back rate of 95%.
- You lost my file. We established a document control system and literally closed off the non-public areas of the building in order to force all documents to come over the counter and be tracked. We let folks know that losing files was as bad as chronic absenteeism.
- What going on with my application? We hired a full-time ombudsman (or in this case ombuds-woman) to be an advocate for the customer. She is equal in status to every division manager and reports directly to me. If someone is needlessly holding up a permit, she has the authority to move it.
The keys to a successful performance audit are:
- Understanding that you need to invest in evaluating your performance. Continuous improvement has a cost, but the returns are worth it.
- Hire a firm that knows what they are doing - and more important - knows what you are doing. The audit time did a good job because they built a team of people who understood the processes and challenges of my department.
- Make it a collaborative effort. A hostile audit only results in hostile recommendations - like firing top management. Realize that an occasional self-evaluation is a good thing - in your life and your job.
Richard H. Carson is a practicing planner of some 30 years. He currently manages 120 employees as director of the Clark County Department of Community Development in Vancouver, Washington. He is a past director of planning for Metro (the Portland, Oregon regional government which represents 1 million people). He is also a past editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and currently maintains the APA national website's Planning Editors Internet List. He was also an elected board member for the APA Oregon Chapter.