Leaving Dysfunctional Government Behind

A tax office's makeover illustrates one way to make progress toward restoring public trust.
May 3, 2016
By Maria E. Walls  |  Contributor
Treasurer of Beaufort County, S.C.

How do you engage people in something they don't even want to think about -- their taxes? How do you show the public that a government office can be fiscally responsible without being blind to customer service? How do you prove that common private-sector principles can be successful in the public sector?

Operational neglect is a surefire recipe for decimating the public's already shaky trust -- and a dagger to the morale and efficiency of a public official's staff. I saw this kind of toxic atmosphere with my own eyes when I first stepped foot in the Beaufort County, S.C., Treasurer's Office five years ago.

Our website was a confusing dump of information. The office space itself was a mess of clutter and in disarray. Makeshift cubicles leaned against dilapidated furniture. And there was paper, lots and lots of paper, everywhere you looked. Staff morale was at an all-time low. There were no internal controls, job descriptions or performance reviews. Most of the 24-person staff had never been formally trained. Some didn't even know how to save a Word document. Even the cleaning crew had given up: Desks were littered with discarded coffee cups and wastebaskets overflowed with scraps of food.

When a tax collector's office operates without a sense of professionalism or efficiency -- whether wastefully printing out reams of reconciliation reports or stacking overflowing boxes of checks still unprocessed weeks after a tax deadline -- it's virtually impossible to sustain public confidence that every dollar is in responsible and accountable hands.

Too often, tax administration occurs in isolation. Bills are mailed. Fees are collected. Beyond that, the public may know very little about what goes on behind closed doors. We do not provide a tangible service for the money we collect, yet we take a portion of each dollar that passes through our office. What successful business could operate with such impunity? How can we justify an institutional mindset that treats taxpayers not as customers but as cash machines?

Beaufort County is remarkably diverse; the treasurer collects on 320,000 property-tax bills spanning tourist sites like Hilton Head Island, military bases like Parris Island, rapidly growing towns like Bluffton and retiree havens from Coosaw Point to Picket Fences. Our citizens deserved something better from their government, and we quickly got to work.

We approached the problem on two interconnected fronts: first, establishing a customer -service agenda to keep the public informed and engaged, and second, transforming our workplace culture to reflect a new understanding that we aren't entitled to the taxpayers' money but are entrusted with it.

We spent 12 months working to increase public awareness. We revamped our antiquated website, expanded our social-media presence, began publishing a quarterly newsletter and placed public-service announcements in newspapers as tax bills came due. At the same time, we strengthened our workplace infrastructure by initiating two full-day training sessions a year and establishing a mission statement and core values that have become ingrained in our daily interactions.

There is much to show for these efforts. Our success is now measured in things beyond high collection rates -- in everything from friendly email correspondence and positive Facebook feedback to the flowers and apple pies dropped off at our offices by appreciative taxpayers. We reduced office expenditures by 24 percent, and our department is now a paperless workplace. Everyone can access electronic documents through a simple search, allowing us to assist any customer at any moment. Taxpayers can easily navigate our content-rich website and download reports detailing every dollar we've collected.

What's most heartening is that our staff enthusiastically bought into the customer-service vision, and we now enjoy a new camaraderie with each other in service to the public. In the end, isn't that what it's all about?