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How a Washington County is Leading the Effort to Get the Most Benefits from Technology Projects

By Jenny Giambattista, Legislative Analyst, King County

Jenny Giambattista, Legislative Analyst, King County

In 2013, local officials in King County, Washington, 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.

"The BAP requires the department proposing a project to describe how the technology investment will improve internal operations, services to customers, cost savings, or reduce the risk of system failures"

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 maximize 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, cost savings, or reduce the risk of system failures.

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. For example, if a project will speed up an internal process, the benefit only happens when the customer is either getting served faster, or the county is able to do more with the same amount 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. 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.

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. 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, often, seeking information from the users of the systems is sufficient to know if benefits are achieved.

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.

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.

EXAMPLES OF EXPECTED OUTCOMES

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. 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, 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 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 on the status of the benefits until the benefit has been achieved.

Conclusion: 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 technology investment to improve services wherever feasible.

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 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 project for progress in achieving benefits.

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