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Spokane County COO Dickson makes gains in government efficiencies

John Dickson is the chief operating officer for Spokane County.  He took over in this position 18 months ago and is know for his "lean government" philosophy, along with his many hand gestures while talking. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
John Dickson is the chief operating officer for Spokane County. He took over in this position 18 months ago and is know for his "lean government" philosophy, along with his many hand gestures while talking. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

John Dickson loves a visual aid.

His hands sweep around as he ticks off, rapid-fire, the changes he’s seen in his almost two years as chief operating officer for Spokane County. He uses a wooden model of a Boeing jet sitting on his desk at the county courthouse. And his go-to metaphor of kinked pipes illustrates his approach to what he calls “lean government.” Dickson is rarely without a means of illustrating his point.

“This is what rocks my boat,” said Dickson, in shirtsleeves and tie, pointing to a whiteboard. It’s scratched with the names of county officials – elected and otherwise – who’ve split into task forces to tackle four priorities in county government: customer service, financial stewardship, public engagement and employee development. The former Boeing executive and director at the Employment Security Department in Spokane arrived at these objectives by polling county workers at all levels, and is starting to see buy-in from departments on what he calls an uncomfortable undertaking.

“People support a world they help create,” Dickson said recently.

‘I’m not the most important person’

It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday in November, and the heads of Spokane County’s departments have filed in to a morning meeting not unlike those that take place monthly at private businesses around the area.

There’s a Mr. Coffee percolating at the front of the conference room in the county’s Human Resources building and a PowerPoint presentation displayed on a projector screen. Dickson stands at the front of the room, egging on employees, such as newly elected county clerk Tim Fitzgerald, as the group discusses its goals for 2015. Dickson motions to the former Marine when another employee brings up on-the-job training.

“Tim, military?” Dickson said.

“It’s called grooming the force,” Fitzgerald replied, explaining how young mechanics in the military are chosen for more difficult assignments as they show promise.

It is this blending of real-world and private enterprise experience, as well as mixing the ideas of department heads, that Dickson says is key to the lean government strategy.

“You have to really humble yourself,” Dickson said. “You have to realize, ‘I’m not the most important person.’ ”

County Auditor Vicky Dalton said Dickson’s leadership has made a big difference in county morale.

“This was one of the few times, in the 26 years that I’ve been with the county, that we’ve really got out of the silos,” Dalton said.

Dickson inherited a post that had been vacant for four years, at a time when the county was slashing jobs. A workforce of more than 2,100 people in 2008 is now fewer than 1,950, with many jobs being eliminated or cut to part time as the economy lagged and tax revenue dwindled. The county took a gamble hiring Dickson away from the Employment Security Department on a six-figure salary, one that County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said has paid off.

In addition to the whiteboards that hang in Dickson’s office and other departments around the county courthouse, Dickson has created a new Web portal for employees that lists cost-cutting or efficiency projects undertaken by each department. Employees can go online and see what innovations other departments are making, and how much time and money it’s saving them and county residents. Savings for the projects Dickson has already seen implemented total in the tens of thousands of dollars annually, with more on the way.

“We’re making visible our challenges,” O’Quinn said. “We’re identifying them.”

What’s working, and what’s not

The biggest buy-in to Dickson’s leadership model has been in the Public Utilities and Sewer Billing department, he said. There, employees meet for at least 15 minutes every morning before the doors open to the public, discussing what’s working and what isn’t in the department.

Lindsey Anderson, a billing employee for six years who once took dozens of complaint calls daily about the county’s billing process, said the “Lean the Lien” process that has been ushered in under Dickson’s leadership has been a boon to employee morale. Previously, the department’s practice was not to accept any money on a late sewer payment unless the full amount could be paid. Now the department will accept whatever amount of money a customer can pay and set up a reimbursement plan for the rest.

“The rules that were in effect, you pay for the entire amount or nothing at all, it wasn’t good for the customer,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t good for us.”

Dickson is quick to point out that the idea came from staff members like Anderson, not himself. He made note of the Lean the Lien program at a presentation to county officials from all over the state at a conference in November, at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee.

Anderson said that kind of change was due to Dickson’s leadership.

“We’re very happy to have John,” Anderson said. “We recognized a need for change. This wouldn’t have happened without John.”

Dickson counts 63 successful projects at the county level, some that merit newspaper ink and others that are behind-the-scenes changes. Another example is the Parks Department’s initiative to cut down the amount of time needed for a special event permit. Dickson boasts a permit process that took two weeks can now take less than a day because of reduced paperwork and redundant oversight.

Scott Douglas, who heads the Spokane to Sandpoint Relay every summer, said the new process was much quicker and alleviated headaches. “Even two weeks would be extremely fast,” he said. “I think we got our permit back the same day.”

The Human Resources Department has also claimed success with its workers’ compensation program, which gets injured workers back on the job quicker in roles that mesh with their recovery process. Steve Bartel, risk assessment director for the county, said employees in the Sheriff’s Office and Roads Department have praised the ability to get back to work faster.

“With what I see, as far as how many projects the county has completed or is working on, it’s a great thing,” Bartel said. “It’s long overdue.”

Dickson hopes to continue pushing employees to look at their processes in the microscope. He said efficiency in government is about identifying the ways of doing things that are failing, not the people who have worked themselves into inefficient routines. This leads him to another of his favorite metaphors.

“I call it ‘blamestorming’ – inadvertently finding someone to blame,” Dickson said. “We’re not focusing on the person, we’ve got some processes that just don’t work.”