Operating Big When You're Small
OPERATING LIKE A GIANT
We all want to provide great customer service. We all want to use the newest technology. We all want nice brochures and well-designed, informative websites. These things make constituents happy and an assessor’s job easier.
For large tax assessing offices, it’s easier to provide high-touch customer service, use advanced technology, or adapt and innovate operations. Large offices have large staffs, so they might have clerks or employees dedicated to answering property owner questions and interfacing with the public. Their large budget allows them to update their technology more frequently. Dedicated public relations or marketing departments within their government organization can design new brochures or create the cool videos the assessor needs. For jurisdictions like King County, WA or Los Angeles County, CA this is certainly the case. They have money and manpower to invest, which allows them to streamline their assessing operations, provide high levels of customer service, and innovate more easily.
When you’re small, building a sophisticated assessing operation is more arduous. You must be creative because that $100M budget and a staff of 100 won’t be falling in your lap anytime soon. So, how can you operate like an L.A. but be the size of Stowe, VT?
KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO ACCOMPLISH
Knowing what you want to accomplish is the first step towards operating like a larger jurisdiction. An assessor in a large jurisdiction can entertain several projects at once; as an assessor in a smaller jurisdiction, you need to focus on a subset of projects. Your goals for each project need to be well-defined since small jurisdiction assessors need to be masters of prioritization. Additionally, well-defined goals will make it easier for you to convince your staff about the benefits of any operational changes and your finance department about the economic benefits.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
When you’re the size of Stowe, the only way to operate like an L.A. is through collaboration. You certainly need to collaborate with key direct stakeholders. You probably also need to collaborate with other departments in your organization, organizations external to your government, and vendors.
There are typically three direct stakeholders most assessors deal with besides the citizen: their staff, the finance department (of which the assessing department is generally a part), and the executive branch of the local government. Get stakeholders to support your goals so that your goals receive operational, fiscal and political blessings.
Your staff may resist the technological advances or process changes you want to initiate if they aren’t a part of the process. For this reason, your staff must know your goals, understand the objectives, and support what you’re trying to accomplish. After all, if your requests are approved, your department will operate differently, your culture will change slightly. Listen to their perspective, involve them in the plan of action and explain to them how change can cause a positive impact on the organization.
Your finance department is also your partner. They are the first gate to getting a budget for your changes. They also understand the economic impact, positive and negative, operating big can have for a smaller government organization. Ultimately, they must understand that by investing a little, the local government will benefit greatly because constituents will be better served (through better, fairer valuations) and budgets will be easier to predict.
Municipal and county executives
Government executives want to know how your program will help the constituents. They also care about the political ramifications of your plans and if your changes will help the general operation of the municipality or the county.
Inter-departmental partnerships are also important. If more than one department shares the same priorities, working together to broaden the resource pool of people, skills and budgets make sense. Assessors are in a strong position - an investment in your department directly impacts other departments in the government, either by making the assessor’s data easier to access (access is an essentiality for police, fire, emergency services, and economic development) or through direct funding of a department’s budget (as is the case with the education department). These partners can become strong advocates on your behalf, in addition to allies that share their resources.
Looking Outside of Your Government - Consortiums
Another avenue for collaboration is the consortium. A consortium with other towns, cities, or counties amplifies the individual capabilities of each member. Resources and responsibility are shared, reducing the burden to each member. You gain leverage with product and service vendors, which makes spending more efficient and puts you and your partners in a stronger negotiating position. Of course, there are challenges - building a coalition for a consortium takes time and keeping the members' priorities aligned is no easy task. But the benefits make it well worth it.
As an example, Community Software Consortium (CSC) is a consortium of 67 Massachusetts communities. Consortium members have come together with an aspiration to combine resources for leveraging new systems that include GIS techniques, applications designed to streamline tax billing and collections, updating their CAMA systems and more. CSC is successful in providing ownership of new software systems to local communities with superior support that could not be possible of each community-operated outside of the consortium.
Partner with vendors
Finally, vendors are partners too. In many cases, they have the people, resources, and knowledge you lack. Your vendors are natural partners. They have an incentive to help you if the collaboration is mutually beneficial.
Talk to potential vendor partners to understand their core strengths and weaknesses, what they can – and cannot – offer. Make sure to look at their case studies to determine if there’s a match with the kind of expertise you need. Be open about your budgetary constraints and ask for options on how to stagger your engagement with them. Typically a staggered, milestone-based engagement works well for both parties.
FIND ALTERNATIVE SOURCES OF FUNDING
Finally, you will probably need to get creative financially. A commonplace to start is with grants and donations.
Federal and state grants provide necessary funds. At grant.gov, there’s a distinct emphasis on enabling the digital transformation of organizations, perfect for small jurisdictions trying to accomplish more with limited budgets.
Another avenue for alternative sources of funding is corporate sponsorship; corporations award grants for sections in the community where substantial economic or social improvement is needed. In return, they can boost their company’s positive reputation, bring about goodwill with customers and promote their brand image on a larger platform.
Government organizations like NAGC (National Association of Government Corporations) is a forum that procures funding from private businesses through corporate sponsorships. NAGC needs the funds to provide rigorous training to the government contractors helping them progress in their field, as a result, making government operations more efficient for the community.
Tax assessors can look for a similar program by a corporation that is willing to invest for the betterment of the community. Assessors can use the funds for the implementation of GIS in their systems and for providing training to their in-house staff to use this technology effectively. The community benefits from increased transparency and fairer valuation of property along with being ensured that lower-income constituents do not pay a disproportionate share of taxes. Tax assessors can benefit from increased productivity and accuracy in their operational processes.
Most alternate sources of funding are good for initial capital investment or to fund training programs for the staff, but for the long term sustainability of any project, there needs to be an operational budget. That’s why alternate sources of funding are great for starting a project but collaboration is still key if you want the project to continue long term.
BECOMING BEST IN CLASS
As a small jurisdiction, you may find it daunting to offer the kinds of services large cities offer, but it can be achieved with the right partners and strategy. The benefits of operating like a larger jurisdiction are many:
- Constituents are happy to get an experience that is professional and respectful;
- Stakeholders get access to current, accurate information;
- Your staff can focus on their core responsibilities and spend less time on paperwork;
- You benefit from increased productivity and reduced cost.
Getting started with transforming your office is always tough, but when you know what you want to accomplish and you find the right partners that can provide technology and expertise, you can very quickly become a best in class tax assessing organization respected by the community and peers alike.