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Ask and Ye Shall Receive
Publicizing Walker County's press release, as requested.
This article also appears on NorthwestGeorgiaNews.com in the Catoosa News Walker County Messenger opinion pages.
Chairman Shannon Whitfield returned to the airwaves (again) for the Walker County government hour on UCTV on Wednesday night to update citizens on the county's government.
Whitfield spent most of the hour reading numbers from a departmental statistics report which includes statistics from the animal shelter, codes, planning, and other departments. As Whitfield went through the numbers he mentioned something that really caught my attention.
“Single family home construction. This is exciting news. Joe actually did a press release on this this week. Some of you may have seen this on our Facebook page or you may see this in the newspaper--if--if they publicize any good news this week.”
Apparently Whitfield is unhappy with the newspaper and does not believe it will cover the press release drafted by Walker County's public relations officer. Or maybe he is concerned that the public might start to question the wisdom of spending sixty thousand dollars a year for a public information officer who in actuality limits public knowledge to only that which Whitfield approves.
In any case, Chairman Whitfield wants the issue in the paper, so I will oblige him. What is the big news Chairman Whitfield wants us all to know? According to the press release, “New home construction continued to grow at a record pace in Walker County in 2021, posting gains for the third consecutive year.”
“Data tracked by the Walker County Planning Office shows a nearly 5% increase year over year in the number of permits issued for the construction of new single-family homes.”
This is great news! No doubt.
Still, as with any Whitfield news, there is more to know. The first thing to understand is that Walker County lags behind surrounding counties and the regional trend in terms of new housing construction as well as overall growth. Sadly, I do not have an explanation for why this is so. Which brings me back to the statistics reports Chairman Whitfield touts so frequently.
See the December 2021 report below. This is the only quantitative measure of department performance that the public and board of commissioners can access. Take a look at the report and ask yourself a few questions.
Is this data provided meaningful? Does it provide actionable knowledge? Is this sufficient data to accurately evaluate performance?
Not hardly. Which is a problem. How can budget priorities be set? How can any department be evaluated? Are they even evaluated now?
Consider the planning and zoning performance measurement of single family home permits each month. The knowledge gained by this data is barely more than what would be gained by driving by the planning office and checking if the building is still standing. It gives little insight into whether policies are actually working or if there are any customer pain points in the process. What are some key performance metrics that might be useful?
Average elapsed time from permit application to approval
Longest and shortest times from application to approval
Number of new applications
Customer satisfaction and feedback
Several other key metrics could explain why Walker County lags behind the region in housing and overall growth. Unfortunately the data provided by Chairman Whitfield is meaningless for the public or the board.
As another example, Chairman Whitfield made a point during the show of mentioning the number of nights booked at Mountain Cove Farms in 2021 compared to 2016. The number of nights booked in 2016 was just 162 compared to the current three year average of 900 nights booked. On its face this sounds great and is a reason to pat him on the back.
Yet again though, with Whitfield news there is more to the story. A look at the audits from 2016-2020 shows that operating revenue has not increased at all since 2016. In 2016 operating revenue was $149,934. In 2019 when more than 1000 nights were booked, operating revenue was actually lower at only $131,893. To his credit, expenses are lower but Mountain Cove Farms continues to operate at a loss just as it did in 2016 and as it has every other year. The charts below illustrate the issue.
Now ask yourself, does knowing how many nights were booked each month provide any knowledge for the district commissioners or the public that could aid in evaluating what is very clearly a failed business enterprise? Would better performance and financial metrics help turn things around or generate some ideas for developing a plan of action?
Go down the list of every department and the story is the same. It seems when picking out key performance indicators no one bothered to scrutinize them and no one has since.
One giant final point worth mentioning is the complete lack of customer or citizen satisfaction data provided. Government is instituted for the benefit of the people after all. Just to be old-fashioned about it, shouldn't we have some feedback from the people served by the government? Would basic satisfaction data for departments and services be useful in evaluating those departments? What if we conducted an annual citizen survey to gain a view of long term trends?
I’ve asked a lot of questions. Citizens have been asking questions since the beginning to no avail. A lot more could and should be asked. We know Chairman Whitfield won’t be the one asking them. Will the district commissioners? How do they make the decisions they are entrusted to make if they are not provided any data or information to evaluate anything at even a basic level?
I hope this week’s column meets the exacting standard Chairman Whitfield had in mind when he chose to assail a local newspaper doing it’s job. Oscar Wilde once said, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."