Process Management Approach Leads to Competitive Government

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Business Relationship Manager - Product Lifecycle Management, Chevron Corporation

Five years ago, telecommunications companies operating in Florida faced a baffling array of taxes levied at the local level. Each municipality and local governmental entity had their own tax tables and methods of collection. “As the U.S. Congress passed the Telecommunications Simplification Act, we listened to our customers and our suppliers, which are who we consider our tax filers,” said Dale Weeks, senior executive officer at the Florida Department of Revenue (DOR) and the agency’s chief business process and benchmarking leadership officer. “They were looking for the simplicity in the process.”

Since then, collection of telecommunications taxes has been centralized at the state level. The most obvious result–increased efficiency–has led to an increase in tax revenue and a decrease in the staff needed.

But, said Weeks, increased revenue is only part of the payoff for improving the process. “The broader issue is voluntary compliance,” he said. “If you look at our resources, a lot of them are devoted to gradual, forced compliance in the broader context of voluntary compliance. Or, to use the words of quality–we want to do it right the first time.” The easier it gets for people to pay the tax owed, the more willingly they will actually comply with the law.

Streamlining and improving the processes involved with the telecommunication tax is only one example of the Florida DOR’s nearly 15-year journey in process and quality improvement. During that time, the department has emerged as one of the leading examples of a public agency deploying the principles of process and quality improvement found in the private sector. It is on the forefront of the transition of government from a vertical, supervisory model organized according to bureaus and section chiefs, to a horizontal organization with a focus on process.

Leaders at the Florida Department of Revenue did not wait for performance management standards to be legislated. They volunteered to take that road.

Getting Started

The Florida DOR, a large public sector organization with 5300 employees and tax collections of $35 billion per year, administers most of Florida’s state taxes, enforces child support, and oversees administration of property tax by local governments. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the DOR leadership wanted to increase the department’s efficiency and stability. At the time, new ideas about quality improvement and process improvement were being widely discussed in the private sector. The idea was to see how those concepts could be applied to the public sector as well. “A lot of government agencies wait until the legislature or the governor come in and pass an order that says you will do performance measurement,” said Weeks, who joined the department in 2000. “They (the DOR leadership) volunteered. They put their hand up.” To launch the effort, department officials educated themselves about quality and process management concepts. They visited private sector companies such as FedEx, Motorola, and American Express Universal Card, and established benchmarking relationships with them.

The research led to an important insight. Many of the DOR’s business processes were the same as the business processes used in the private sector. For example, the department’s General Tax Administration receives and processes more than 10 million tax returns and more than $35 billion in tax per year from nearly 1.4 million Florida taxpayers. As a business process, this differed little from the way remittances are handled by any large financial institution.

The Shift to Process

The research and the benchmarking helped the department put some initial performance measures in place. The improvement process had begun. “We had some success,” said Weeks, “but we learned that you cannot expect to have the same set of measures in place continuously. You have to learn and grow from them.”

Just how quickly the department was learning and improving its processes became apparent in the mid-1990s. At the time, the Florida child support system was functioning poorly. The Child Support Enforcement program has more than 700,000 cases and touches 25 percent of the children in Florida. According to federal performance measures, Florida was number 48 out of 54 states and territories.

Looking for a solution, the state legislature decided to shift child support enforcement from the social services agency with which it had been associated and hand it to the DOR.

At first glance, the move might seem counter-intuitive. After all, why should a revenue authority take responsibility for child support? From a process perspective, however, the shift made sense. “Child support deals with money,” Weeks said. “DOR was doing well dealing with money.”

The department approached its new responsibilities to collect child support payments in a systematic, process-oriented way. The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement publishes data from all 50 states according to a handful of performance measures. “The standards were set and we could determine where we were,” he said.

The DOR set ambitious goals. “The executive director wanted our focus directly on the CSE mission of getting more money to more children more quickly,” Weeks said. That meant moving from their position as 48th in the country. A 2001 assessment found that it took approximately 254 days to generate a legal referral and get the judge to sign a support order. Florida only had a judicial procedure to establish orders. In Florida, obtaining a payment order required negotiating a legal labyrinth. Several other states used an administrative procedure and reported much shorter time frames (close to 30 days) to establish the support order. “They used a different system and showed markedly improved results. We wanted that too,” said Weeks.

The research led the department to propose a restructuring of the way the orders could be obtained in Florida. Once implemented, the amount of time it took to obtain an order in Florida dropped to an average of approximately 89 days and, in some cases, reached the benchmark target of 30 days or less.

The DOR made other changes as well. It dropped the traditional approach of having a single caseworker assigned to a case from beginning to end. Instead, it charted workflows, established business processes, trained specialized teams to handle steps in the process, and began to plan, measure, and manage by business process across the CSE Program. The new processes set the foundation for additional performance improvements.

The results have been impressive. Since the DOR took over, collections have risen from $388.6 million in 1993-1994 to $1.1 billion in 2004- 2005, although caseloads in 2005 are actually lower than in 1993.

But even with the gains, according to the federally established performance standards, Florida still only ranks in the middle of the pack. Last year, Florida established a goal of being in the top five in child support nationally.

To achieve that goal, managers have set major objectives–such as increasing the number of children for whom paternity can be established—and annual, quarterly and monthly goals for regions, service centers and work units. Over time, it hopes to establish individual performance goals as well.

Other Opportunities and Challenges

The DOR’s success with the child support enforcement program has led to a reconsideration of how to manage other common processes across the state. For example, the DOR registers businesses in the tax collection process. In Florida, the Secretary of State’s office also registers businesses, as do other agencies with oversight in specific areas. “Shouldn’t there be one point of contact,” Weeks said.

The same approach could be used for call centers. Though agencies staff their own call centers, the process is basically the same. “Over time,” Weeks suggested, “agencies should not duplicate processes.”

The goal of the process-orientation, of course, is to improve efficiency and service to the citizens. But the focus on process has also allowed the DOR to clearly demonstrate to the governor and the state legislature that it is effectively delivering its services. “When our legislature gets a proposal from the private sector we can show them our results and measures,” Weeks said. In many cases, the DOR has proven the business case for keeping an operation in the department. In other cases, outsourced functions have been taken back in-house because the supplier cannot produce better results.

Next Steps

The next step, Weeks said, is to be able to put its process improvement efforts within the context of a larger performance management strategic initiative. To that end, the DOR has identified 70 core processes and close to 200 sub-processes. Cross-functional teams of 20 to 25 representatives from different programs and subject matter experts have defined performance and process management measures. “We are looking for all our processes to have a key set of measures, like a balanced scorecard,” Weeks said. “What is the financial side? What is the customer side? What is the employee side?”

The process approach is working. In a time of budget constraints, the DOR has avoided cutbacks. More importantly, the DOR is pioneering a new concept–competitive government. By functioning more efficiently, government can be the foundation of competitive advantage for a city, state or country.

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