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Each year, the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA) honors a public-sector risk manager with the Public Risk Manager of the Year award, the most prestigious award an individual member of the organization can receive. This year’s recipient is Allie Matthews, risk manager for the City of Tucson, Arizona. We recently spoke to Matthews to learn more about her career journey and the initiatives that contributed to her being named as PRIMA’s 2022 Risk Manager of the Year.

The Path from Public Education to Risk Management

Matthews is a lifelong Tucsonan who has spent her career serving the people of her hometown. Before becoming the City of Tucson’s risk manager in 2013, Matthews had a 30-year career with the City of Tucson’s Sunnyside unified school district — the second-largest district in Southern Arizona.

Initially hired as a clerk in the district’s psychology department, she soon moved to the finance department, where she gained experience with accounting, budgeting initiatives, and detailed analytical processes. Matthews then took a position within the curriculum department; after approximately five years, she returned to the finance department, filling a need for the monitoring of budget expenses and reporting.

Courtesy of Workers’ Compensation challenges the district was experiencing at the time, Matthews soon had her initial introduction to risk management practices. High injury rates, a poor Experience Modification (EMod) rating, and the district’s inability to secure coverage through the Arizona State Compensation Fund led to her involvement in helping to put together a self-insured Workers’ Comp plan. A partnership with the Arizona School Retention Trust (the Trust), along with workshops and seminars offered by the Arizona School Alliance for Workers’ Compensation, provided Matthews with additional education and training resources. “That began my real interest in, not just Workers’ Comp, but in all things related to risk management,” says Matthews, who worked alongside the Trust on developing the school district’s risk management program, that included loss control and training initiatives. “Once I dove into that, I knew it’s what I wanted to do.”

After 23 years of — among her many other duties — managing the district’s self-insured property, casualty, Workers’ Compensation, liability, and student insurance claims and reports, Matthews retired in 2006. During the seven years that followed, she continued to work as a risk management contractor for the district until she accepted the risk manager position with the city in 2013.

Revamping the City of Tucson’s Risk Management Program

According to a profile (“Tucson Risk Manager Targets Zero”) in the July/August issue of Public Risk magazine, Matthews wasted little time in addressing gaps — identified through an external audit she requested soon after starting in the position — in the city’s risk management program. “Matthews instituted several measures for the proper valuation of claims, including requesting additional staff for the department,” writes Jennifer Ackerman, PRIMA CEO and author of the profile. “Matthews also established the self-insurance trust board, organized the valuation data for the city’s more than 700 municipal properties and more than 2,000 housing units.”

Even before requesting the external audit and receiving the results, Matthews began meeting with members of other city departments, establishing relationships and building trust by working to gain a firsthand understanding of the issues they faced. “We needed to develop the mindset that we practice today,” explained Matthews during our interview. “What I call the ‘Three Cs’ — communicating, collaborating, and cooperating.”

Nine years into her tenure, Matthews has not only transformed the City of Tucson’s risk management program, but she has also had a major impact on the way that city employees think about risk management. “’Allie has led the charge with how we approach risk management,’” Tucson city manager Michael Ortega told Ackerman. “’It’s no longer risk management as one subset or section, but it’s ingrained in our organization.’”

Recognition for Achievements in Public Risk Management

In addition to her dedication to the risk management profession and her use of creative approaches to solving complex issues, Matthews’s involvement in three specific areas are cited in the Public Risk profile as factors that contributed to her recognition as PRIMA’s 2022 Public Risk Manager of the Year.

Leading the City-Wide Target Zero Initiative

Initiated in 2020, Target Zero is a collaborative, city-wide safety and health management program that aims to protect city employees and reduce incidents by promoting a proactive approach to identifying and addressing workplace hazards and encouraging adherence to safe driving practices. “It includes 63 elements spanning seven components with a focus on employee engagement in workplace safety and health,” writes Ackerman. “There exist no acceptable number of injuries, illnesses, or incidents in the workplace — the goal is zero.”

To date, with the participation of four city departments (and more slated to join in the near future), the employee-focused program is a resounding success, both in terms of engagement and results. “Target Zero has shown a total recordable incident rate (TRIR) reduction from 7.0 in 2019 to 5.4 in 2021,” writes Ackerman. “The program also yielded a reduction in ‘days away, restricted or transferred’ (DART) of 23 percent.’”

Putting a New Risk Management Information System (RMIS) to Work

 Another contributing factor highlighted by Ackerman is Matthews’s foresight in the selection of the City of Tucson’s new risk management information system (RMIS). Initially driven by the need to replace the city’s outdated claims management system, Matthews understood the value of procuring and implementing a technology solution that would help to further foster risk management collaboration and communication across multiple disciplines. For example, following initial implementation of the RMIS in 2018, the city’s new RMIS was subsequently put to use in 2019 for the management of driving program data, as well as by the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (OEOP) for the reporting of incidents. In 2020, the city was able to use their RMIS to track COVID information for the city’s approximately 5,000 employees.

According to Matthews, the RMIS has been a “game changer” for her team and other departments — both in terms of improved efficiency and in providing metrics that help department directors and others form a better understanding of trends and identify potential areas of needs. “It has allowed me more time to get and work on continuing to build relationships, foster new partnerships, and focus working with more departments on prevention efforts,” she says.

Paying it Forward — Mentoring Risk and Safety Professionals

Mentorship is the third factor cited as contributing to Matthews being honored as the Public Risk Manager of the Year. Informed by her own experience as a newcomer to the practice of risk management, Matthews understands that serving as a resource for those who are in the early stages of their careers can be invaluable.

“Not only does Matthews mentor within the community and serve on several boards, but [her] personal and professional philosophy has been to grow, develop, mentor and coach staff from all levels to become their best selves,” writes Ackerman. An example of Matthews putting this philosophy to work is a quarterly rotational shadowing program for the city’s liability groups that she implemented to help city employees at or above the supervisor level develop their professional skills.

Congratulations to Allie Matthews, the PRIMA 2022 Public Risk Manager of the Year

At Origami Risk, we are proud to work with Allie Matthews and her team, and we congratulate her on this well-deserved honor.

To read more about Matthews and the City of Tucson’s Target Zero initiative, we encourage you to download the in the July/August issue of Public Risk magazine. More information about the PRIMA Risk Manager of the Year Award — along with nomination details for all of PRIMA’s 2023 awards — are available on the PRIMA website.