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County overhaul turns constituents into 'customers'

If all goes according to plan, Clackamas County will look and feel a lot more like a Fortune 500 company by 2017 than a county government.

Performance Clackamas is the county’s ambitious new strategic plan based on the Managing for Results model. Adopted Sept. 18, it lays out 28 measurable goals in five categories: economy, infrastructure, public health and safety, natural resources, and public trust in government.

“It’s a tricky affair trying to pull something together in this way with an organization as diverse as Clackamas County,” says Administrator Don Krupp, who was charged with the overhaul immediately after being hired last September.

The former Thurston County manager says it was made pretty clear during his job interview that this is what he would be working on.

“Each of (the county commissioners) talked passionately about the need for Clackamas County to have a strategic plan to give them an ability to measure long-term goals,” Krupp says. “I kept hearing that in the interview process.”

The plan will roll out in stages throughout all of the commission-managed departments, with interviews of each of the county’s 1,800 employees to determine how best to write their new “business plans” focused on “customer service” and the Board of County Commissioners’ goals. The departments run by other elected officials, such as the sheriff, clerk and district attorney, will be invited to participate. County Tax Assessor Bob Vroman was one of the first to jump on board.

The commissioners came to a consensus on their goals fairly quickly during a March 31-April 1 strategic planning retreat.

“Some would say that’s a rare and special day, but you would be surprised at how often we agree,” says County Chair John Ludlow.

Commissioner Martha Schrader says she was pleased with the planning process and looks forward to a budget process informed by goals and priorities, but she also acknowledged that the new way of doing business could have political ramifications.

“This is a risky thing for elected officials to do,” Schrader says.

Good in theory

Originally developed in the 1960s, the Managing for Results philosophy is deceptively simple — managers base their strategy on the goals they want to achieve. For example, instead of the traditional model of measuring a health department by how many patients it served, Clackamas’ new goal is that 95 percent of county residents have access to routine health care by 2018. By recalibrating to focus on the end goal — healthier communities — the department is given the freedom to accomplish that goal in whatever way it thinks is best.

“It helps us focus on why we do what we do,” says Strategic Policy Administrator Dan Chandler, the man charged with implementing the plan county-wide. “It’s a relentless focus on the customer.”

But while the theory may be fairly agreeable, Managing for Results can be difficult to put into practice.

Drummond Kahn is the director of audit services in the city of Portland. He says Portland attempted this model in 2003, but “I think it’s still a work-in-progress.”

The State of Oregon also tried this philosophy with the Oregon Progress Board, which fell apart in 2009 after two decades of dwindling significance for its benchmarks.

The outcome-oriented process requires politicians to commit to measurable goals that might end up being out of their control, to publicly prioritize one type of service over another and to put real, comparable dollar figures on each of its county services.

“It’s wonderful in concept, but it appears difficult in principle to implement,” Khan says, listing a number of other problems that can come up, such as measuring the wrong thing or penalizing a department come budget time for not meeting a goal that it actually needed more money to accomplish.

But if the county can get all the kinks worked out, says Kahn, Managing for Results is “still a good ideal and still a good process to consider.”

Office culture transformation

Other jurisdictions across the nation have had better results than Clackamas’ neighbors.

Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes the city of Pheonix, has a massive $2.2 billion budget and yet managed to recalibrate during the last decade to mostly pay-as-you-go financing and systematic reductions in property taxes.

County spokesperson Cari Gerchick says that since the turn of the millennium, Managing for Results has become such an integrated part of the culture that she forgets its even there.

“’What gets measured gets done’ really sums up our experience with Managing for Results,” Gerchick says. “It’s just a part of the DNA of our county management.

“I think you need a method by which you plan to spend the public’s money and you need a method of measuring your return on investment,” she adds. “That way we can tell our taxpayers where their dollars went.”

In Gunnison County, Colo., County Manager Matthew Birnie says the last seven years of Managing for Results has been transformative for his county.

“It’s much less sort of theoretical and flowery,” Birnie says. “It really is focused on driving action and getting things done ... rather than a broad statement of good intentions.”

Gunnison County even received an award for improvement at the Sept. 14-17 International City/County Management Association conference in North Carolina after a third-party survey found its citizens were happier with every aspect of their county government.

“We’ve really transformed our culture and broken down a lot of silos,” Birnie says. “It took us quite a while to implement throughout the organization, but now the various departments across the county have a common language.”

The Willamette University graduate worked in Marion, Linn and Jefferson counties before moving to Colorado and guessed that Clackamas’ county commission will have an easier time of it than Portland’s city commission system or Oregon’s legislature.

“Honestly, if government’s going to get anything done, they have to prioritize,” Birnie says, adding: “From a staff perspective, it’s very liberating and effective to know what the elected officials want.”

For his part, Ludlow says he looks forward to the new system and vowed to keep a close eye on progress.

“If outcomes are not achieved, there will be ramifications come budget time,” the Clackamas board chair says. “We will not be shy to sunset things that aren’t working.”

Contact Shasta Kearns Moore at 503-546-5134 or shasta@portlandtribune.com.

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