Jeff Prang: It’s all about the method

Jeff Prang, Los Angeles County assessor

A technological dilemma facing the most populous county in the nation was how to take a massive amount of data wedded to an antiquated mainframe, green screen, technologically four-decade behind-the-times system and bring that into the 21st Century.

That was the dilemma I faced as the newly elected Los Angeles County Assessor back in 2014. A quick recap: I manage an agency that catalogues 2.4 million real properties and 300,000 business property assessments. Much of this data was still being processed by hand, maintained in paper files and microfiche, displayed on flickering green screens that continually broke down. I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that a technological upgrade was long overdue.

Moreover, my IT experts along with everybody else in government knew the tools and products already existed to modernize the system and had been for a long time.

The answer was not technology, but how to implement the new technology without causing massive disruption to operations, cost overruns and crippling delays.

Over the years we have all read or heard of numerous examples of government agencies seeking to replace large legacy mainframe-based applications or inefficient paper-intensive structures with current technology only to have the conversion result in delays, cost overruns and complete system failures. 

I had seen this way too often where attempts are made to redesign the specifications for the technology replacement, then bidding the project and finally, having the new system completely built and turning it on all at once in what I call a “Big Bang” fashion. These systems are put together, tested and then put online all at once.

But here’s the rub: The system is put online all at once and then it crashes online all at once.

Just look at two recent examples in Los Angeles County, such as the Los Angeles Water and Power billing system, which when rolled out had significant errors that pushed the initial budget estimate into the stratosphere and ultimately cost more than $200 million. The DWP is still struggling with that debacle to this day. Then you have the Los Angeles Unified School District’s payroll system, initially costing $95 million plus an additional $35 million in repairs, and resulted in 36,000 teachers receiving inaccurate paychecks.

I adopted a more agile development methodology and launched what I call the Assessor Modernization Project or AMP.

AMP is developed in components using an innovative, flexible and agile approach. Here’s how it works: Each new increment is developed in two-week intervals. These short sprints allow development and testing before moving ahead to the next module. This simple approach makes certain that each increment is successfully working before moving ahead. The design team meets regularly to assure that all team members are up to date on the latest activity and have the most current knowledge affecting the outcome of the design of each component. Everyone has input and ownership in advancing the AMP project.

I also decided to borrow the Japanese consensus decision-making model employed in manufacturing and assembly line production since its introduction in the U.S., whereby any employee has the authority to shut down the entire line so that problems can be fixed immediately rather than postponing or causing delays. Similarly, the design team within the Assessor’s Office is in control of AMP every step of the way. 

AMP is currently entering Phase III of a five-phase development plan, and many of the functions originally conceived are already operational. It is anticipated the new system will be fully operational by the year 2021 and is currently on time and on budget, according to all county staff projections. New functionality is released for employee and public use simultaneously as it is developed.

Moreover, the legacy system continues to operate in parallel with the AMP during development, serving as a fallback and accuracy check preceding the complete conversion to the replacement system. Unlike most projects of this type, when the project is complete, the new system will not be turned on, as it is already on and in use – the old system will simply be turned off.

In summation, our methodology and approach serve as a template for other county and government agencies charged with updating their systems, and hopefully, can help them avoid the pitfalls of previous unsuccessful projects. We developed a multi-departmental working group to ensure that our system wasn’t built in a silo, but rather, it takes into consideration the needs of other departments and government agencies that rely on Assessor data. And finally, the development of an assessment technology from the ground up may benefit California’s other 58 county assessors who have struggled for many years to find an ideal technology platform.

Los Angeles County Assessor Jeff Prang has been in office since 2014. Upon taking office, Prang implemented sweeping reforms to ensure that the strictest ethical guidelines rooted in fairness, accuracy and integrity would be adhered to in his office, which is the largest office of its kind in the nation with 1,400 employees and provides the foundation for a property tax system that generates $16 billion annually.

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