Thursday, May 31, 2012

Quality Improvement in Government

In his latest blog post ASQ CEO Paul Borawski ponders the lack of a commitment to quality in government. Paul writes, "Why do so few leaders charged with leading countries, states, provinces, and cities require improved performance? ... there are thousands of public service success stories... Yet the adoption rate versus the opportunity is remarkably low."

I have had the unique opportunity to participate on two community service improvement projects in local government: one with the City of Hutchinson, MN; the other with the Planning Commissioners in McLeod County MN - both to redesign local government processes to eliminate waste and create a "One Stop Shop" for services.  Both case studies are discussed in more detail in the booklet Improving Performance Through Statistical Thinking by Britz, Emerling, et al. from the ASQ Statistics Division. (ASQ Quality Press). From my experience it seems much easier to drive continuous improvement at the local government level than state or federal. Why? Perhaps because most mayors and commissioners tend to serve their communities for multiple terms spanning many  consecutive years, enabling a constancy of purpose. Also, local government leaders are closer to their constituency (voice of customer), less susceptible to high-powered well-financed lobbyists and special interest groups, and can more visibly and immediately see the impact of their decisions.

Despite the creation of a U.S. national quality award during Ronald Reagan's presidency, the 2007 Executive Order of then President George W. Bush requiring every federal agency of the United States government to name a Performance Improvement Officer, and 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's pledge to adopt Lean Six Sigma, waste in government continues mostly unabated. There are pockets of exceptions, of course... the U.S. Army and other military institutions, for example, have been on a protracted Baldrige journey to improve their efficiency.  Hence, I believe the reason for lack of efficiency in state and national civilian government is the general lack of a shared, common mission and constancy of purpose (e.g. politics) that prevents execution of any sustained performance improvement. Whether one supports states' rights and a small central government, or prefer a strong federal government that provides oversight and accountability, we all want our tax dollars spent wisely to serve the republic and enhance civilization.

Incremental continuous improvement and personal accountability should be expected of every individual employed in government - just as it is expected in business. Performance standards should be documented and established; key performance metrics should be developed and measured; root cause analysis performed and corrective & preventive action plans implemented. Breakthrough performance improvement may require the formation of specialized teams similar to ex-President George W. Bush's suggestion of Performance Improvement Officers. Citizens concerned about the cost to implement such programs should take comfort by the magnitude of actual savings realized by industry. Properly designed, implemented and executed, these waste reduction efforts will save many, many times over the cost of implementation. But until and unless we can get beyond the severe polarization and win-lose mentality of today's politics it is difficult to believe we will ever achieve significant performance improvement. Society must first return to civility, and we must adopt a shared mission of efficient and effective government.

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