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 Sean Catanese, Enterprise Risk Management Program Manager for King County, Washington. We recently had the opportunity to ask Sean questions about his career journey and some of the initiatives that contributed to him being named as PRIMA’s 2023 Risk Manager of the Year.
What led you to pursue a career in the risk management profession? More specifically, how did you become interested in public sector risk management?
I started working in risk management just before graduating college. My first role was coordinating safety training for a pool administrator. That firm helped me grow into work which included on-site safety inspections, safety culture surveys, and then enterprise risk management consulting. They also helped me earn my ARM along the way.
King County’s ERM program was a great opportunity to move from fast-paced consulting into the hands-on, invested work of building a sustained program from inside an organization. Public service has always appealed to me. My undergraduate degree is in government, and I took on internships with public sector organized labor in college, too. There are many aspects of government work that aren’t often glamorous or celebrated. But that’s where much of the real work gets done, solving serious challenges together with communities on a meaningful scale, and that’s exactly where I want to be.
Being honored as the PRIMA Public Risk Management of the Year comes (at least in part) as a result of all you’ve done over the past nine years to take King County’s ERM program from concept to an important resource used across the county’s various agencies. When you got the ball rolling in 2014, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting the program off of the ground?
King County operates on an impressive scale — 16,000 employees serving 2.3 million residents across a geography the size of some smaller US states. Our operations touch every aspect of our communities’ livelihoods: public health, transit, law enforcement, criminal justice, roads, wastewater, parks, and much more.
That’s a lot of risk for a one-person program to consider. The job would be impossible, in fact, without a team. We’re fortunate to have trusting relationships across leadership and deep within operations. Those champions and allies play a crucial role in the ERM program’s success.
We also have some operating conditions that help us succeed:
Executive leadership has set a consistent True North and Values. This is a key basis for our risk appetite statement. This clarity and stability allow us to dedicate effort to connecting our risks, objectives, and strategy without worrying they might change suddenly and upset the foundation of our work.
Our tort liability environment induces us to invest in controls. We have a high self-insured retention. Our state has very limited sovereign immunity, no tort liability cap, and a long statute of limitations. All of these together are daunting, but they also create a significant upside for us if we can prevent high-severity issues from occurring.
Related to the ongoing buy-in and long-term success of the program, King County’s ERM program includes a dynamic and regularly updated risk appetite statement and advanced enterprise risk register. How do you approach maintaining the program’s momentum? Do you see the program evolving in the near future?
We review and adjust the program periodically. Sometimes we find a new opportunity to engage a risk owner more deeply. Other times we find we can push a risk to the back burner if it appears the controls are working as intended.
For the risk appetite statement and enterprise risk register, we examine and update each in alternating years. This keeps the core elements of the program current while allowing risk owners time to develop and implement their plans so they make a difference.
Another area we have to consider is continuity. I would love to keep doing this job for the next 20 years if I had the opportunity, but the organization and our community deserve more resilience than relying on a one-person program. The specific fix for that can take several different shapes, and we’ll need to explore that area in the future if we’re going to walk our own talk.
King County’s ERM program has a $2M biennial loss control program that you administer. At a high level, will you please tell us about that program? What goes into determining which risks will be addressed by loss control projects?
I hate to use the word “proactive” anywhere, but it really does apply here. The loss control fund is that “ounce of prevention” to counterbalance the “pound of cure” represented in the dollars we spend on settlements and judgments paid to claimants, their families, and their lawyers.
The fund started in 1999 with a $35,000 budget (about $64,000 in today’s dollars) and a directive to help agencies with emergent tort liability needs. It can’t stop every bad outcome or prevent every serious incident, but we do know it makes a meaningful difference.
Amounts shift from year to year, yet the fund’s purpose is clear: When a risk owner knows we can help them, they are more likely to identify challenges we don’t already know about. And that is the most valuable information for a risk manager to have.
You’re also the lead administrator of King County’s risk management technology system. In addition to using it to manage the traditional aspects of risk management (tort claims, subrogation, and insurance policies), you’re also using it to proactively work to surface developing risk issues. How are you using the system to accomplish this?
A key part of our success has been the ability to run deep in our analyses, using techniques that often require some advanced expertise. We have that expertise, but we need high-quality data to inform it. In our current system, we have control that lets us shape the data we gather, expand who we gather it from, and get it with higher speed and reliability than in the past.
That lets us ask detailed questions and understand their answers with nuance and depth. For example, it’s one thing to say, “I can trend my frequency and severity rates year-over-year”. That’s good. Baseline trends are great data to have.
But it’s a game-changer to be able to pull clean data for analysis to say, “These weeks where we change up our transit service also have more accidents, maybe we should examine that more closely.” And then follow it up with, “The accident types that increase correspond to these areas of training and these other decisions we make.” Then we know more than baseline statistics. Instead, we know where we can push or pull on a lever that changes an outcome down the road.
In 2019, King County became the first local government in the state to support electronic tort claim filing. Will you please tell us a little about the electronic claims portal that is used in the filing of a majority of those claims? How were claims filed before the claims portal went live? What have some of the benefits of switching been?
This is another great example of teamwork. Our whole office took it on as an opportunity to improve access to our services and timely, equitable customer engagement.
The overall rate at which we receive claims and the rate at which we pay them has remained fairly steady (to the extent that we can validly measure it while also accounting for the pandemic’s disruptions). But our times for loss-to-report and report-to-close have fallen dramatically.
Previously, the median loss-to-report was 35 calendar days. That included each claimant printing, completing, and mailing a paper form and some handling on our end.
For portal-filed claims, the median loss-to-report is 8 days, and they now make up about half of our claims.
The shortened loss-to-report time means witness memories are fresher, video evidence is more readily available, and our investigations become faster and easier. After we opened electronic filing, our median report-to-close for all claims fell 40%, from ten weeks to six. For portal-filed claims, it’s 33 calendar days.
The key, though, is that it wasn’t just turning on a portal and calling it good. This was an opportunity to critically examine our status quo for delivering customer service and re-orient it. Our former process approached claims focused strongly on compliance with legal requirements. In the revised process, our focus became building trust and responsive engagement with each claimant.
It may seem anathema to a risk manager’s goals to make it easier to file a claim. But the difficulty or ease of the process doesn’t change whether the adverse event happened. A paper-limited process only delays and complicates the investigation and makes it more likely that a customer starts out frustrated or – even worse – decides to hire a lawyer to handle everything rather than engage us directly.
With electronic claim filing, I’ve even heard from our investigators that claimants remark on the surprising convenience, the speed of our response, or how reassured they were to get a copy of their claim form emailed to them right after they submitted it.
CONGRATULATIONS TO SEAN CATANESE, THE PRIMA 2023 PUBLIC RISK MANAGER OF THE YEAR
We are proud to work with Sean Catanese and we congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.
To read more, we encourage you to download the July/August/September 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 2024 awards — is available on the PRIMA website. More information about the King County Office of Risk Management Services (ORMS) can be found at https://kingcounty.gov.