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Fixing a Process that No Longer Makes Sense

An Oregon agency found ways to cut the time it takes to do background checks by more than half. With inefficient processes and duplicative services rife in government, that's just the beginning of the journey.

Jeff Akin's team of 32 people is responsible for preventing the wrong people from getting responsibility for the care of Oregon's vulnerable population of children, seniors and people with disabilities. It's a job the Department of Human Services (DHS) team takes seriously in doing some 9,500 background checks each month.

"By the time a background check comes to us," Akin explains, "there's usually an immediate need to fill a position." Aiming to make the process faster and more efficient, Akin and his team went to work to find ways to better serve the 44 different DHS programs that rely on them for background checks.

Along the way, the team learned many things. The discovery Akin loves to recount is about a nursing home that needed a background check on a prospective employee. His department instructed the nursing home to send the individual to a nearby Oregon state police office. The prospective employee drove the four miles to the police office and had her fingerprints taken electronically, and then the fingerprints were printed on a paper card. She returned that card to the nursing home, which mailed it to Akin's office. The card then was sent via a state courier back to the same state police office, where the paper fingerprints were converted back into electronic fingerprints. The state police then ran the fingerprints through its databases to see if the prospective employee had a criminal background.

As bad as all that sounds, it gets worse: The person at the state police office who processed the paper card back into the electronic version and ran the online search sat only 10 feet away from the person who took the original fingerprints.

Stories like that of bureaucratic processes run amok led Akin, his team and his agency to do what every work team in government would like to have permission to do: Go fix what no longer makes sense. Employing a "lean" process-improvement approach, the team members wrote a problem statement, did a lot of research to uncover root causes, figured out who stakeholders were and involved them, developed a vision and a plan, obtained approvals, and started moving forward on improvements.

In the process, the team eliminated non-value-added steps, cut duplication and fixed recurring problems to achieve some remarkable improvements in the way it handles background checks:

• Processing time was reduced from nine business days to four.

• The number of background checks performed was cut from 11,500 per month to 9,500 by eliminating duplicative checks.

• Staff was reduced from 44 to 32, with the excess employees reassigned to other areas.

Akin, his team and their agency see many more opportunities to make things work better in their part of Oregon state government. But while the kind of process improvement that Akin's team is undertaking is critical to more efficient government, there also is a huge cross-agency opportunity: Oregon has 29 agencies, boards and commissions that run background checks. Each operates under its own laws, regulations, rules and funding. Each has its own processes. Each has its own staff.

And that's just for background checks. It's hard not to notice the abundance of duplication across state agencies. Whether it's email systems, diversity programs, leadership development programs or purchasing of everyday office supplies, one agency often does the same thing as another.

Oregon is beginning the process of getting at that problem of duplication by applying the approach Akin's team used across agencies and system-wide. DHS and the Oregon Health Authority are well along in that process, and other agencies implementing it include the Oregon Youth Authority, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Public Employee Retirement System, the lottery and the Department of Administrative Services.

Every government must decide for itself that these kinds of opportunities are too big to pass up and then figure out which approach works best. While it might be tempting to bring in process-improvement experts in to fix problems, the key is to move the authority and skills to the people who do the work, as Oregon's agencies are doing. It's not a one-time quick fix. It's an improvement journey, and in Oregon that journey has just begun.

Senior fellow, Governing Institute
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