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QUALITY MANAGEMENT: What does it require for a local government to be quality-driven?

Deborah-Mackin-2013-NewDirectionsAs Paul Barowski reflected on his recent discussion with the City of Milwaukee about their ASQ membership, I thought of several key elements that are necessary for quality to take root in city, local or state governments.  It’s also interesting to me that despite finding quality departments routinely in manufacturing, engineering, pharmaceuticals and retail, the Office of Quality in government is typically specific to the environment (Office of Environmental Quality).  Why is that?  Is it the expectation that quality will be a vital function within each department, or that the quality function stands along as a “governing” unit?

So, the question becomes, “What is needed to encourage government to pick up the banner of quality and run with it in all its functions?”  I was reminded of a local news story this morning about how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was about to set a record for on-time budgeting for the third year in a row – a feat that is so exceptional in New York that it became headline news.  Imagine if businesses expected a headline every time they completed a fiscal year budget.  The notion of working together for the good of the whole in order to accomplish on-time delivery may be quite unique for governments.

capital_building_symbol_800Perhaps it’s unique because governments are political entities, subject to a collective community that does not always pull in the same direction.  They are also highly dependent on the beliefs, behaviors and actions of their top political office holders.  Cuomo, for example, has been focused on delivering an on-time budget for months; he is one of those government leaders who is not afraid to push, speak out and rock the boat.  Therefore, we believe the first element for quality in government is for the leader to be passionate and clear about quality expectations and relentless in the pursuit of those expectations.   

Admittedly, I am not well-versed in government’s orientation to quality, so I decided to speak to the Bennington Economic and Community Director, Michael Harrington (full disclosure:  Michael is my son and worked for three years at New Directions, so he was easy to contact).  I asked him to put his thoughts about quality in government in writing so they could be shared:

While I have never really considered quality systems in terms of government and public service, I believe this recent ASQ post presents an interesting perspective. As I review my municipal government here in Vermont, I can easily envision areas where quality control measures and measurable performance indicators would assist us in meeting our objectives.

Oftentimes local governments spend a significant amount of time in data gathering without moving to action, while conversely they can also become extremely reactive, moving quick to action when receiving outcries from the community. Unfortunately neither of these scenarios lend themselves to quality thinking, which requires a more visionary and strategic approach.

Adding to this puzzle, municipalities, much like the Titanic heading for the iceberg, take a wide and slow approach when adjusting their focus, making it hard to avoid potential hazards and often missing fleeting opportunities.

I share these thoughts not as a reason for not introducing quality concepts into municipal work, but more so to acknowledge the roadblocks that may exist.  My personal experience being a newly appointed municipal employee has varied. There are times when I feel like our efforts are a cut above in terms of innovative thinking and creative problem solving; while other times, I find our desire to meet the needs of the collective community prevents us from taking necessary action that might divide the constituency. And as one of the more risk adverse industries, I find myself asking “are we good, or simply good enough.” 

Michael brings up an important second element in the implementation of quality- being proactive, rather than reactive, through a visionary and strategic approach.  A reactive approach focuses on how to explain what has just happened; a proactive approach utilizes standards and metrics to be on top of what’s happening and planning and forecasting for the future.  If we walked into our municipal government would we see a quality-oriented mission, vision and values, quality service measures, days for permit approvals, number of citizen complaints, and grants filed and approved as a “glass house” for quality.  Or, is that too transparent for government, leaving the town or state government open to political attacks from those who think they can do it better.

The third element related to quality in government surrounds the notion of change and staying ahead of the community curve.  Municipalities have a tendency, as Michael suggests, to be complacent with a “good enough” attitude.  The drive for continuous improvement, new and innovative approaches and robust problem solving are not beliefs and attitudes common to government.  Governmental leaders will need to champion change and learn how to overcome resistance.

Just like all of us, local and state governments are going to find that they have no choice but to change, based on the economics we’re all facing.  And the idea of delivering quality service and quality products, based on the customer defining what is quality, will be crucial to build a tax base that supports growth and innovation.  We’re all at a cross-roads, aren’t we, between doing enough to get by and really encouraging quality to take root.

Build quality practices whether in government or not by downloading our Quality Problem-Solving Tool Kit!

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