Salt Lake County’s Beth Mitchell on Finding Lessons in Your Data

August 4, 2017 10:22 am PST | Effective Governing

How can a government organization with billions of rows of data use it to make their processes more efficient?

During a presentation at Socrata Connect, Salt Lake County’s Director of Performance and Innovation Beth Mitchell outlined her strategy for doing a data-based analysis of processes. Her main advice: “Go straight to the pain points.”

Mitchell was joined by Brittany Allen, Associate Division Director of Planning and Development for Salt Lake County, who shared a step-by-step look into the outcomes of this deep dive into performance for her division.




“My job has been to align data and the people in government in Salt Lake County to maximize our impact but also to drive resources towards what works,” says Mitchell. This task requires a thorough review of departmental goals and data. Mitchell describes departmental deep dives as a process that’s part framework, part facilitation, and part therapy. Her four-part recipe for innovation is to engage, acknowledge, inquire, and empower departmental staffers.


The Hawthorne Effect in Action

In Metrostat Performance, Salt Lake County has a well-developed performance initiative made up of three parts: MetroStat Dashboard, a public-facing look at the county’s performance; Outcome Stat, which connects the budget to outcomes; and MetroStat Impact Meetings (MIMs).


metrostat impact meeting process


It’s during these Metrostat Impact Meetings meetings that staffers dive in and examine their processes. Asking questions about what works and what doesn’t may seem like a minor step. Not so, says Mitchell. Salt Lake County proves that the Hawthorne effect, or the phenomenon of individuals modifying their behavior when observed, really exists.


“What gets looked at, gets improved.” —Beth Mitchell, Director of Performance and Innovation 


“What gets looked at,” says Mitchell, “gets improved.”  At the top level of her inquiries during MIMs, Mitchell asks divisions (in Salt Lake County, divisions are a subset of departments) the following questions:


  1. What is the mission of your division?
  2. How do you know you’re fulfilling it?
  3. What are you most proud of?
  4. What keeps you up at night?


With that fourth question — what keeps you up at night? — Mitchell steers people toward considering pain points. Data, she says, can help tell the story of pain points, and also help resolve them.


The Results of a Data Deep Dive

Here’s one look at how a close examination of pain points helped one county division improve. Salt Lake County’s Planning and Development Services division was overburdened with planning requests, which need to be reviewed before issuing permits. There were far too many requests submitted for their lone plans examiner to handle, and it was unclear if their third party reviewers were effective at the review process or a good use of budget.

That’s where MIMs came in.


planning and development meetings


“We knew we were spending a lot of money on plan review. We had no idea how much. We were sending things out, because we couldn’t get them done [internally]. We didn’t know if it was the best strategy. We knew we had a problem, but we didn’t know how to fix it. So, we started collecting data on everything,”  says Allen.


We knew we had a problem, but we didn’t know how to fix it. So, we started collecting data on everything.” —Brittany Allen, Associate Division Director of Planning and Development


Tracking this information made it easy to identify strengths — and also areas where the county could improve operations. Discussions around weaknesses aren’t easy, but they’re often a necessary impetus for progress. The deep dive into plans review began in January 2016; by May 2016, the county hit 100 percent of its goal to issue single-family dwelling permits on time. In March 2016, the county sent out 30 percent of plans to external vendors; now, the county is down to 5.1 percent sent out.


salt lake county achieves goal


Allen is rolling out the process to the rest of the divisions in the county, but acknowledges that there is often resistance initially. “It’s very time consuming,” she says, which is off-putting to supervisors who are already behind with permits. She tells them, “‘If you track this, I promise it will save you time and improve the outcome in the long run.’”

Saving time and reducing the need for third-party reviewers isn’t the only benefit to the revamped permit process. “Now, we have data available at our fingertips,” says Allen, which means no more scrambling for numbers in response to requests. “We have a bill that’s in our legislature this year and the sponsor gave us one hour to give them information on how long it takes to review a plan for a residential home. I was able to give him that data within that hour.”  


Learn More: How to Do a Deep Data Dive

For more nuts-and-bolts information on how to do a departmental deep dive, watch the presentation. Along with insights from Salt Lake County, Seattle’s Tyler Running Deer, Deputy Director, Performance Management & Internal Operations, also shares Seattle’s goals, deliverables, and strategy for performance work.

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