Recession Proofing Your Community Development Department

Posted on January 12, 2018

By GovSense co-founder Gary McTall. Gary spent 10 years consulting and designing software solutions for local governments, but he was always running into limitations in the on-premise software. After consulting private equity firms and software companies on cloud solutions, he felt it was imperative to bring innovation to government. Twitter and LinkedIn

Working with planning and zoning departments from Alaska to Abu Dhabi and many places in-between, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with community leaders to overcome some of their most difficult challenges.  Often, these challenges were transactional in nature and were meant to solve a particular business need in a moment in time; for example, decrease the number of days to complete the building permit process, design a software solution that enables concurrent plan review across the organization, etc. However, after working with communities impacted by The Great Recession (2007-2012), a passion arose to build strategies that help community leaders recession-proof their department(s) in the event the economy trends downward once again.
Usually when a community selects software applications to help empower their employees, the focus is on a deep dive into functionality and specific tasks that employees currently do or would like to do more easily. At GovSense, we take a different approach and often challenge our customers to flip the functionality funnel and start with an overarching goal to achieve success. Regularly this conversation leads to efficiencies which result in improved delivery of services to constituents. After The Great Recession, we found that many departments were asked to “Do More With Less” and some communities are still in that precarious position.
Flipping the Functionality Funnel is All Well and Good, but How Do You Actually DO MORE WITH LESS?
The challenge of “Doing More With Less” is admittedly easier said than done. I have spent a tremendous amount of time researching potential solutions that are pragmatic and actually achievable. I reached out to thought leaders, searched for agencies that were successful in accomplishing this goal, dug into other industries to find successful use cases, and just asked questions. I discovered that the first hurdle is to define, if we need to do more with less, what is enough to still be considered successful? Stated differently, how do we ensure our clients can determine an accurate baseline to measure current performance? To solve this challenge, I looked to leaders in the services industry. How are organizations that do not always provide a tangible product (e.g., consulting firms, architecture and engineering firms, and even software companies) determining their baseline measurements for success?
First Up . . . Monitor and Measure
To understand the baseline, we must first Monitor and Measure. The focus of this phase is tracking the transactional nature of a project. Jurisdictions must ask:

  • What is the fee associated with the service we are delivering?
  • What is the expectation of the customer from a service perspective?
    • Turn-around time, communication cadence, transparency
      • Note: Each of these have costs (opportunity and/or financial)
    • And most importantly, focus on your most valuable asset . . . your people.
      • How many people are needed to complete this project?
      • How much time will each person involved spend on this project?
      • What bandwidth does each person have to dedicate to said project?
      • What other costs (opportunity or financial) are associated with this project?

For most local governments, the fees associated are relatively straight-forward because they are written into an ordinance. This exercise will likely encourage you to think through your fee schedule and propose adjustments based on your findings.
The data collected during the monitor and measure phase will give you valuable insights into providing accurate customer expectations.
Disciplined Project Management is Critical
Next, to monitor and measure any project, it is critical to understand the investment people make into the project. Initially the focus should be on tracking time spent on each project. You will want to meet with current stakeholders and identify the tasks that need to be accomplished on each type of project. Please note. . .  implementing time tracking is never fun; however, reminding team members of the overarching goal and what is in it for them often helps. If the long-term strategy is to recession-proof the department and remove “do more with less” from management’s vocabulary, team members are almost always onboard.
Tracking time on projects will then begin to yield data dividends in areas like number of people on a project and how much time was spent on what. This will also allow you to back into estimated profitability or (likely) cost of a project. We often hear the rebuttal, “unlike the private sector, our (local government) goal isn’t to make money.” I understand; however, if you are going to recession-proof your department, this is a critical data point. It will be your ace in the hole when proposing a fee schedule update, discussing future budget adjustments, and keeping your team a cohesive team.
A little “inside baseball” on this topic….I’ll take the software industry as an example. Many modern software companies are taking the approach that they are a “software company” and services need to cover costs, not necessarily profit. Therefore, in essence, the quote regarding public vs. private sector is often moot. Modern cloud solutions will discount services (one-time costs) to earn your business before discounting software (recurring revenue).  On the other hand, older, legacy on-premise software companies will often discount their software (one-time costs) first, before discounting their services because they know you will need their services later to upgrade, thus making it more recurring in nature.
 Finally, noting that each community is different and number of transactions per day, week, month vary, how do you know when it is time to progress to the next stage?
Here are three simple indicators that it’s time to move forward:

  1. You feel you have a good sample size of each type of project / application.
  2. You are able to identify and remove outlier project data without it dramatically impacting your averages or mean data.
  3. You are able to socialize the list of project participants (departments and/or individuals) and all involved parties agree they should be involved and no one is missing.

Gain Project Consistency and Efficiencies with Templating
Now that you have gathered all the necessary data, it’s time to move to the next stage, Templating. Templating is important because it will help you define not only the tasks associated with each project type, but, will also help you define a true work-breakdown structure (WBS) with task and resource dependencies.
When designing your work-breakdown structure, you will want to take all of the rich timesheet data you gathered during the projects and tasks phase and turn that into the estimated time to complete each task. For each task, you should target not only estimated time, but also, a task owner and dependencies. When defining task owners, it is okay to not always have a hard resource (e.g., Mary in Engineering or Jim in Fire). Establishing a soft resource (Building Plan Check Team or State Agency) will yield the same results for planning. Work-breakdown structure will hold the assignment of tasks and team members accountable; therefore, soft resource allocation is acceptable.
Templating is also very important to your process because it will provide a consistent, measurable experience.  When templating your projects, it is important to keep your end goal, solving “Do More with Less” intact; therefore, your primary focus should be on the highest volume processes or highest return on process. However, you will want to keep your outlier uses cases and measure against those as well.
Once your templates are well defined, you can begin to monitor this new, consistent set of data. With a standardized work-breakdown structure, you are now able to manage cogs in the process, identify and predict bottle necks, and conduct what-if scenarios, plus forecast resource needs to continue exceeding your customers’ and the public’s expectations.
In closing, recession-proofing your department is not an easy task and each community has their own unique challenges. My hope is that this article encourages more communities to flip their functionality funnel and focus more on the long-term impact on people and process of “Doing More With Less”. If you have any questions or thoughts, please feel free to reach out to me directly; I always enjoy engaging in conversation and fresh ideas.

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