Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Countywide Community Forums & King County Auditor: Public Trust, Customer Service & Public Engagement

by August 3rd, 2010

SUMMARY: King County government handles criminal justice, law enforcement, public health, social services, elections, property assessment and tax collection, wastewater treatment, transit, environmental protection, land use regulation and much more. Several times yearly citizen volunteers for our Countywide Community Forums hold small in-person meetings to help the county try to do a better job. The program is privately-funded, mainly by Dick Spady of Dick’s Drive-Ins. Recently 306 volunteers gave their advice on customer service, public trust and public engagement in our special Opinnionnaire survey that’s crunched into a final report by the county auditor’s office.

RESULTS: King County got high marks for overall satisfaction with county institutions, for overall customer service, and for the county Web site. But citizen volunteers felt the county needs to do better at listening, and be more willing to be influenced by them. They also want shorter wait times for in-person service and more knowledgeable help on the phone. Among additional comments: Every department should have a blog to provide information and promptly answer questions posed there; the county should be be more transparent with cost-benefit analyses of major expenditures, and make the budget process more participatory. The next round of Countywide Community Forums, starting in September, will be on the county budget dilemma, which will continue to exist even if the small sales tax hike facing voters in November is approved.

BACKGROUND, DEMOGRAPHICS: From May 1 to June 13, 33 small meetings were held around King County, where citizens discussed the Round 5 CCF topic of customer service, public trust and public engagement in King County government. Additional surveys were completed online, for a total of 306 responses. Slightly less than half of respondents lived in Seattle, the rest in suburban cities or unincorporated King County. Thirty-five percent were minority, slightly higher than the county’s population. The overall group tended to be longtime residents but typically had not ever testified before at a King County public hearing or town hall meeting. One of the CCF program’s aims is to connect with such constituents, who want a considered discussion on governance and to then provide their recommendations, but in a more intimate setting than a large public meeting. Another key aim of the program is to educate the public about the responsibilities and challenges facing King County government.

(Key links and results follow).

KEY LINKS: Final Report, “Public Trust, Customer Service, and Public Engagement,” Countywide Community Forums and King County Auditor’s Office, July 20, 2010 (pdf files – Adobe Reader needed)
Demographic Questions & Responses
Customer Service Questions & Answers
Public Engagement Questions & Answers


  • Forty-one percent of respondents were satisfied overall with King County institutions as a whole, 36 percent were neutral, and 22 percent were unsatisfied. (Question D-11).
  • Of respondents who’ve had recent in-person customer service experiences with King County, impressions were generally positive, but with some room for improvement. It was easy for most to find the division or department they were looking for, and employees were typically courteous and knowledgeable. But of those who answered definitively (filtering out the “neutral” and “abstain” responses), more respondents than not said they had had to wait more than ten minutes for service. (Questions T-15 to T-20).
  • The county’s Web site is performing fairly well, based on survey responses. Among those who had a definitive view, a sizable majority indicated they found what they needed fairly easily and it met their information needs. (Questions T-25 to T-28).
  • Customer service experiences on the telephone were not as uniformly good as in-person or online. One challenge for a significant proportion of respondents with a definitive opinion on the question was getting a knowledgeable person to respond to their inquiry. And among respondents providing a definitive answer, more reported that they failed than succeeded to get a return call within one business day after leaving a message with the county. (Questions T-29 to T-32).
  • On public engagement, respondents who gave definitive answers indicated that overall, the county does well providing opportunities to participate and in encouraging cooperation. But they also said the county needs real improvement at listening and being willing to be influenced when constituents do participate in public engagement; at being transparent and open about engagement processes; and in designing useful engagement processes. (Questions T-37 to T-43).
  • Methods of public engagement most preferred were Countywide Community Forums; county hearings, meetings and workshops held in community locations; e-mail; and Web site comments. Significantly less popular were meetings at county facilities, teleconferences and Webinars, interactive cable television and social media. (Note: Age of respondent pool was evenly split between over 50 and under 50). (Questions T-44 to T-53).


(On desired customer service attributes)

  • “No fake courtesy, actual sincerity.”
  • “Completeness of information. Easy things like bus schedules, I appreciate having online, and that counts for a lot. More difficult things, like what’s happening to the bus stop at 95th and Aurora, I can’t find out who KNOWS the answer, much less what the answer is.”

(On recent customer service experiences)

  • “I was very impressed when a county residential appraiser came within an hour to consider adjusting my tax assessment…can’t beat that kind of service!”
  • “Many of the people I dealt with seemed to be ‘doing their job,’ not necessarily there to serve or assist us. The phrase ‘that’s not my job’ should be replaced with direction of how to get it done, rather than explanation of why it can’t be done.”
  • “My King County Web experience, limited as it is, has been satisfactory. Not outstanding. Just serviceable. I no longer seek out telephone or in-person contact because it’s way too frustrating and difficult.”
  • “Regarding the Dockton Seawall Project (on Maury Island) I had requested (pdf files) of the proposed alternative to be sent to me, which I never received. Also suggested those alternatives to be displayed for citizen consideration in a public space such as the chamber of commerce or library, which was not acted upon.”
  • “The ability of the (automated, online) Metro trip planner…to understand attempts to specify addresses is pathetic.”
  • “We are not ‘customers’ needing ‘service.’ we are the public, who are participants in the process of government.”

(Recommendations on other citizen engagement methods)

  • “Public debates between teams of subject matter experts and community leaders. Not the stilted pro-forma debates seen in legislatures, but rather sincere and thorough discussion and evaluation of particular county issues. Videotape these and have them available in online libraries and in actual libraries. update significant changes occur.”
  • “The best one I’ve seen is (Seattle Department of Transportation’s) blog. you can post comments and questions and they generally respond. I’d love to see every department of a government do this – it would quickly make government more approachable. A formal phone call or letter (or even e-mail) is further than most want to take their question unless is has a strong, direct impact on their lives.”
  • “Have shows (music, potluck, drums, etc.) to make (public engagement) more fun and less monotone, and have information accessible throughout the event.”
  • “Information given at gas stations, grocery stores, libraries, and other places where people go.”
  • “Online, interactive avatar-oriented forums, per ‘World of Warcraft,’ but as ‘World of Crisis.'”
  • “Participatory budgeting (as in Porto Allegra).”

(On recommended performance measures)

  • “Transparency requested. How much does it cost on an itemized basis including fees paid to consultants? What are the expected results? What are the actual results?”

(From meeting host summaries of pre-survey discussions among respondents)

  • “Trip Planner has not been updated, people are being sent to closed stops. It happened that morning (5/22/10) to one participant. ‘Customer service’ is a sterile concept; seems designed to fend off complaints, not really encourage participation or take responsibility. Constituents are people, not customers. County government should provide more information in county-wide media to promote news and outreach on a daily basis…Use platforms that have followings that have followings to tell real stories that matter, to engage people. Also, use electronic billboards to highlight meetings (council, others) and engagement opportunities. People want to be more informed but it takes too much time to do the research…rooting around Web sites isn’t something most people want to do. County government needs to connect more effectively with existing community institutions (such as) senior centers, social service programs for minority, homeless or youth populations. Use these modes to build awareness of county government’s broader role. Many Seattle residents have little or no awareness of county. (Enlist) help of city to do necessary education on separation between city and county services…”

RELATED: “Countywide Forums To Tackle Budget Priorities And Taxes” for Round 6 in September and October.

2 Responses to “Countywide Community Forums & King County Auditor: Public Trust, Customer Service & Public Engagement”

  1. […] on how King County is doing on customer service, public trust and public engagement. Here’s my original Ferret write-up on the final report prepared by the King County Auditor’s Office, and here’s the audio […]

  2. […] Opinionnaire survey-taking by citizen volunteers, which will run from September 11 to October 17. Here is an overview of our Round 5 effort, on customer service, public trust and public engagement. CCF is a public engagement program […]