Spokane County commissioners will spend $104,000 a year for a top manager with expertise in improving the efficiency of large organizations.
Commissioners this week announced that John Dickson, the Spokane-area director for the Department of Employment Security in Washington, will become the county’s chief operating officer starting March 1. He will fill a position that has been vacant for more than four years.
Dickson is an expert in organizational efficiency as developed in Toyota’s “lean” approach to production.
Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, who took office at the end of December, is leading the drive to implement efficiency. She said she believes the county can improve service to citizens and trim expenses.
She said the plan is not to cut staff, but to improve the way the county operates in a period of lackluster revenue.
“I think Spokane County is doing a fantastic job,” she said.
The county has seen its workforce drop from 2,000 in 2008 to 1,800 this year. A number of senior employees will be retiring in the next several years, so the county will lose some expertise, O’Quinn said.
“You have to at some point look at how you do things,” she said. “I’d rather be proactive than reactive.”
Commissioners on Tuesday approved $40,000 to renovate office space in the courthouse for Dickson. In addition to salary, his benefits will cost $40,000 annually, county officials said.
“I’m totally excited,” said Dickson, who plans to spend his first month getting to know county workers. He said that government is filled with dedicated workers, and “I’m just going to enable the needed changes to occur.”
The position that Dickson fills was previously occupied by Gerald Gemmill, the former county operations director now at Spokane City Hall.
Dickson holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Washington and spent 20 years with Boeing as a senior leader in military defense programs where he learned the so-called “lean” philosophy. He also holds a master’s degree in engineering management from WSU.
Dickson moved in 2006 to Berg Integrated Systems, of Plummer, working on defense contracts before joining Employment Security’s WorkSource program in 2009. There, he is credited with changes that cut wait times and helped workers find jobs. Dickson also serves on several volunteer boards and the Inland Northwest Lean Management Consortium.
Gordon Smith Jr., union staff representative for Council 2 workers, said labor is “going to take a wait-and-see approach.”
“Is this going to be another layer of bureaucracy?” Smith asked. But an engaged and accessible leader would be an asset to county workers, he said.
Former County Commissioner Kate McCaslin said she is skeptical that spending $200,000 in the first year and $150,000 each year in the future will buy what O’Quinn and the other commissioners are seeking.
“If she wants to change the culture, it starts with the county commissioners,” McCaslin said. “Change the culture by setting the example.”
She said she believes commissioners should articulate the expected outcomes and ways to measure the value of their new hire.
O’Quinn said she envisions a program similar to what is laid out by efficiency expert Ken Miller in his book “Extreme Government Makeover.”