John Arthur Wilson, Chief Deputy Assessor, the Axelerate Interview by Farayi Chiro

February 4, 2013 · By · Puget Sound Business, Technology · Tags: , , , , ,

John Wilson, Chief Deputy Assessor for King County, foresees the day when taxpayers will expect that they’ll be able to handle all their governmental transactions by using their smartphones or tablet computers.  The challenge for the Public Sector is how to convert outmoded systems to take advantage of the new digital mobile technologies so they can meet that expectation.

Q: John Wilson, you are the Chief Deputy Assessor for King County, tell us what that means.

A:  I run the day-to-day operations of the department. We’re 212 FTEs, and about $22 million a year budget.  I am responsible for development of our budget, and I steer our long-term strategic planning efforts.

Q: What is the department’s strategic direction?

A: Where we’ve been trying to steer the department over the last three years is looking how we can better use technology across our department, and across our various functions – to improve our efficiencies, to preserve or expand capacity, of our ability to deliver services – and look t what new services that emerging technology might allow us to provide.

Q: The tech landscape is so dynamic, how do you keep apprised of the latest emerging technologies?

A: I read a lot. I have a lot of friends as well as two sons who both work in the technology sector.  I also spend a lot of time in conversations and in collaboration with Bill Kehoe CIO of the County. And, I try to keep abreast of what is going on by attending conferences, and with working with folks like you.

 Looking forward, we’ll need to look externally to both the general public and taxpayers and also some of our partners from within the public sector. And I’m always looking for private sector collaborations.


Q: What is going on in the King County Assessors Office?

A: We are on an institutional track of continuous process improvement. We are looking at our current processes and how we can improve them – where we can digitize, and where we still need a human face.

Most of that work so far has been internally focused, looking forward; we’ll need to look externally – to both the general public and taxpayers and also some of our partners from within the public sector. And I’m always looking for private sector collaborations.

Q: Are you talking about Citizen Portals, where citizens can come to pay their taxes easily? What exactly do you mean when you say ‘external.’

A: Yes, things like: Making it easier for people to pay their taxes online. We are now finishing up on an online appeals system that we’ve been testing, developed so that you’ll be able to appeal your property taxes online.  I’d like to start looking at how we develop other taxpayer-facing Apps, which will allow them to more easily look up information on their property taxes. We have it all online now, but perhaps consolidating it into an easily navigated App for a mobile environment.

Q: You’ve recently implemented a tablet solution for your field data collection. Tell us about that.

A: We wanted to make it easier for our people to collect data, so gave them iPads and an App that we’ve developed for them.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the decision to go with an iPad and the development of that iPad App – and the process of getting involved in the mobile space? What was the reasoning to go that route?

A:  There were a couple of drivers: One was the technology we were using in the field was hitting the end of lifecycle of the devices themselves, and also clearly the whole mobile environment had undergone a paradigm shift since we first went out into the field with the tablet PCs.  I just became convinced that there was a more effective and efficient way we could work out in the field.

Q: We’re sitting here in the heart of a major technology marketplace, with many technology, communications and mobile companies, lots of developers, tech consultants. What you’ve told us so far is that there is a lot of work to be done as you migrate your workflow from analog to digital, what are the opportunities for the private sector to get involved?

A: Part of it is that we need to do a better job of setting up some kind of data sharing or information sharing of ‘Here’s what we’re doing – What are you doing’.  One of my frustrations at the County – and it is internal – is that we have an enormous amount of data, but we don’t tell each other what we have, so we don’t really know how we can use it.

That in turn does step out to folks like you (Axelerate) to tell us ‘you’ve got all this [data], here is what you can do with it.’ We need to get everyone around the same table internally and say ‘OK, here’s what I’ve got, what do you have?’

One of my frustrations is that for all of the technology resources that we have around us – like you guys and others, including that quaint little software company in Redmond – is that we don’t do a particularly good job of find out how to reach out to the tech community to discover how best they can help us.

Q: What can King County learn from the best practices of other County, State and local governments?

A: As I travel around the country, I see that there are other locales that have been savvier in figuring out how to partner with the private sector than we have.  In the next five years, as government revenues start to come back, and taxes start to stabilize, there will be some money on the table.

One of the greatest challenges is how governments learn to smartly spend that money with technology – and how best to leverage it.  That will require a blending of people who understand the inside of government and also people who understand technology; where there is a handshake between the two of them.

Q: It seems like you have two challenges: Identifying the best practices, and then picking the right partners.

A:  One of the challenges that governments have these days is [changing] the historic model of getting locked into [technology] and being forced to just ‘live with it.’  What we see is an ever-increasing mobile workforce. So we want to know what are the tools they’ll need in order to go mobile? Understanding that mobility is different than just putting your desktop apps onto your laptop. It is also being mindful that the lifecycle horizons aren’t 10 years or 20 years, they are maybe three to five, if you are lucky. The risk you have is that you get locked into an [outmoded] Enterprise Solution.

Q: So, what is the answer?

A: In terms of an approach, you have to be more module, to be able to deploy all of the various technologies you can use in a way that they are that are compatible and stackable.  It is having the ability to say, ‘five years from now will this be the right choice?’

Q: And where will the department be in five years?

During a mobile technology planning session, one member of the team suggested that the future was ‘Droids’ I asked if he meant Android phones, and he said no – ‘Droids, as in unmanned planes!’

A: Who knows? We were having a mobile technology planning session a year and a half ago, and one member of the team suggested that the future was ‘Droids.’   I asked if he meant Android phones, and he said no – ‘Droids, as in unmanned planes!’


A: Well, I’ve been told that you can now buy Droids on Amazon. So, you can see the day when — there are large stretches of the county where it is a vast expanse and not much else there — where it might make sense to use a Droid.

Q: Well, the Seattle Police Department has recently announced that it has Drones in its arsenal.

A:  Some of the things we have to prepare for may seem today to be farfetched, but within a short time they may not be.  So you have to be open.  I think the other challenge we have with technology is that you have to recognize that just because you have a hammer, not everything is a nail — just because you have technology, not everything calls for a technology solution.

Sadly, what you saw happen over the past five years – that happened with so many government agencies – is that they stopped both making the technology investments, and they stopped making training investments in staff.

Q: Is that changing?

A: I hope we are at a new threshold moment  – where we are going to start making investments in technology again – but also provide people with training so that we can get the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck.



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