The Government/Quality Puzzle

I’ve been thinking a lot about quality and government lately. There have been a lot of cues to think about it. The recent election in France. The continued struggles of Greece.  The 10-year quality plan created by AQSIQ in China.  The topic came up in Stockholm recently in a Future of Quality workshop sponsored by the Swedish Quality Institute. Government, the audience said, is an essential force of change for quality. Government influences quality through purchasing policy, through public policy, and through its use of (or lack of use) quality in the management of government.   

In 2007 by Executive Order of then President George W. Bush, every federal agency of the United States government was required to name a Performance Improvement Officer.  In 2010, the Partnership for Public Service commissioned Grant Thornton, a large public accounting firm, to review the progress that has been made. It wasn’t encouraging. Take a look if you’d like.

Government has such a large impact on our lives, our economic security, and our children’s future–yet in any discussion I’ve ever had about the cost of quality, everyone laughs when I say, “In an average manufacturing business, 20 cents of every revenue dollar is lost to the cost of poor quality. In the service industry, 30 cents on a dollar.  In health care, 70 cents on a dollar.  And in government, no one really knows but always guesses that it’s worse than healthcare.” We laugh because the alternative is tears.

So, the big question of course is–why?  Why do citizens expect and demand so little accountability for the poor use of resources in government?  Why do so few leaders charged with leading countries, states, provinces, and cities require improved performance? I have great regard for the men and women who serve as public employees. I have no doubt whatsoever that they desire to do good work.  I’ve listened to many of their stories of frustration, and sometimes desperation.    

I’m sure none of us doubt the direct applicability of quality concepts, techniques, and tools to assure improved performance in the public sector. I know there are thousands of public service success stories to serve as proof positive the quality works. (Here’s one example: One ASQ member has spent the last 15 years mentoring government leaders in Botswana, and helping to create a remarkable quality transformation.)

Yet the adoption rate versus the opportunity is remarkably low. I don’t sense any positive momentum.  It seems we can do as much as we want in manufacturing, service, education, and healthcare, but if government doesn’t likewise move along in its own journey to performance excellence, we won’t be able to assure our ability to enjoy an improved quality of life.

If you know of a good public service story, please share it. Look to the stories  in the countries where you live, were educated, or work. If you have ideas of what it would take to make quality in government the rule rather than the far-too-seldom exception, please tell us. If your view on the prevalence of quality in government differs, please share your view as well.

Market forces will ultimately weed out the best from worst in the for-profit sector.  As consumers, we speak.  What ultimately assures the same in government?

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12 Responses to The Government/Quality Puzzle

  1. Jonathan Stout says:

    If you are looking for stories on Quality in Government check out the story of the county tax assessor for Tarrant County, Betsy Price. Part of her job was running the county tax offices. She used her business expretise to help make the experience pleasant and effecient. She also helped make the Department of Public Safety a more efficient and customer friendly experience. Betsy Price is now the Mayor of Fort Worth.

  2. KEVIN says:

    The problem is you can’t mix quality in government with politics. The best efforts of good intended government workers are usually derailed by the desires of appointed executives. Quality is usually objective, and often at odds with the whims of the pols.

  3. Mark Graban says:

    Nothing bad or wasteful or dysfunction gets weeded out of the U.S. federal government. There is no competition waiting to swoop in.

    If a state (say, New York or California) wants to run itself poorly, residents can move to other states. And, states can’t print money to bail themselves out, as the feds can.

    I’m extremely cynical about about “lean government.” At the federal level it seems like a pipe dream and maybe a waste of time. The best citizens can hope for is better service (using lean to reduce the waiting time for a passport, for example) — but that’s tactical, not transformational.

  4. JIverson says:

    What has ASQ done to champion quality in government? ASQ continues to market tools to Government agencies without a framework to support their usage. If a government PIO went to ASQ and asked, “what do I need to know?” I’m not sure ASQ’s answer would have much value. I’d like to see ASQ play a more helpful role of recommending a process to support GPRA and tailoring the quality BOK to support government.

  5. Pete says:

    Can you provide a source reference to support your statement – “In an average manufacturing business, 20 cents of every revenue dollar is lost to the cost of poor quality. In the service industry, 30 cents on a dollar. In health care, 70 cents on a dollar. And in government, no one really knows but always guesses that it’s worse than healthcare.”



  6. Kishore says:

    Waste, Fraud, and Abuse is pervasive in most of the government services in all democratic societies.

    The main root causes of Waste, Fraud, and Abuse are lack of accountability and corruption.

    Take the case of the US. The congress blames the president for not getting things done. The president blames the congress for not getting things done. Finally very little gets done to improve the government services and the public frustration and anger continue to grow.

    It is good to hear few of the republican presidential candidates talk about using Lean Six Sigma methodologies to eliminate waste in government agencies.

    One of the first steps that any quality oriented government can take is consolidation of multiple federal agencies.

    Every quality initiative starts with commitment from the top management. Top management in the context of government services consists of the president, the congress, and the secretaries of the state. Let us hope that the top management of the government services takes solid steps to plan and implement quality initiatives to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse.

    As quality professionals, we have a very important responsibility to continue to promote the importance of quality initiatives to improve the government services.

  7. KerrieAnne Christian says:

    you’ve certainly hit a nerve with the posts on government & quality I’ve seen so far
    also it is interesting that ISO TC176 has established WG3 to deal with electoral assurance matters. I had been intrigued by this and then I did a search
    no wonder ASQ Daily News feeds regularly have electoral assurance related items – sometimes errors & other times very worrying legally
    rather sad for all those hardworking Electoral Officials with great integrity

  8. MJ says:

    I agree with Mark Graban. Please protect my identity otherwise I am afraid that I might face punitive action as I always try to bring improvement in organization.

    Tell me about it. Caltrans is one of the California State Govt. Organization where a thick Layer of Management & buddy buddy system protects each other. The Management instead of increasing efficiencies and taking care of suggestions from employees, they try to cover up and let go of the projects without focusing on Quality. Employees feel intimated and refrain from even suggesting the improvement. Ask the current Director of Transportation regarding Program Review within CALTRANS and the four core risk analysis. Can the Governor take into consideration of the findings and merge many departments to save Millions of Dollars of Public Money. I doubt it. Our ASQ Members can be of a great help.

  9. Greg Ilkka says:

    As a local government employee, having worked at the state and federal levels, I agree with Mark, at the federal level it may be a pipe dream. At the local and state level there have been successes and I see hope. At any level of government, it is no different than in private industry – if you don’t have commitment from the top (CEO = Mayor, President) , you will not be successful. Everything rises and falls on Leadership.

    At a tactical level in government, I think we could make big strides if we could re-educate middle management, and above. I don’t think many of them have been exposed to Lean and Quality methods, let alone educated themselves or been trained. Many look at me and ask “What do you mean by ‘process’?” Most of them have come up through the system, the only way they know how to manage is “old school”. The functional silo is alive and well in most government organizations.

    Despite this, I remain optimistic, since, there was probably a time when “lean in healthcare” was a “pipe dream” too.

  10. Thanks for the intelligent post. It seem clear to me that to expect citizens to demand better government performance is fantasy. People have way too many critical demands on their attention. Call it niavte, but my belief is that only if political leadership perceives political value in calling attention to the obvious…that is, that inefficient, unproductive, wasteful government processes are a universally obvious yet fixable problem…can any progress occur. There are many local success stories, but very few national candidates and leaders have ever mentioned, let alone championed, such proven methods as Lean, Six Sigma, etc. I would love to be a fly on the wall where political strategists debate policy positions. Is “performance improvement” on the table? How/why does it never make it to a national agenda? Where is Bill Moyers, or equivalent, to probe?

  11. Pingback: May Roundup–Solving the Quality/Government Puzzle | A View from the Q

  12. Marcia M. Weeden says:

    As a former employee of DCAS (Defense Contract Administration Services,) I disagree with the presumption that the government doesn’t know or care about quality.

    In Section 31 of the fifth edition of Juran’s Handbook, “Government Services: Reinvention of the Federal Government ,” was authored by then Vice President Al Gore. If you want to know how much the federal government has improved via quality, read that or do a search of past issues of Quality Progress. There is a plethora of articles pertaining to quality being used to improve government organizations on federal and local levels as well as in the military.

    In the early 1980s, NASA began imposing stricter quality requirements, soon followed by various military installations, the IRS, and the US Postal System.

    In 1988, Secretary of Defense Carlucci required Total Quality Management (TQM) for all Defense agencies. The Federal Quality Institute (FQI) was instituted in June 1988 to train and help these agencies implement TQM.

    In 1987, Congress created the Baldrige National Quality Program. Now, it cut back on funding for it.

    In 1988, the President’s Quality Award (PQA) was established to reward Executive Branch agencies for management excellence.

    In 1993, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act, which required federal agencies to define their missions and evaluate their performance.

    On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 that amended the 1993 Act, in part, by requiring incorporation of management goals and improvement plans into their performance evaluation processes.

    I believe the problem with quality in government is the same as quality in business. It’s profit at any cost. If Congress can vote to cut back on Baldrige, Congress doesn’t understand quality.

    Quality is no longer being championed to be at the top of any organization. It’s been weakened by “tools,” such as Six Sigma and Lean. ISO 9000 was revamped to eliminate accountablity and improvements within a company by focusing on the customer. Ha! That was big corporation influence to cut back on what they perceived were unnecessary costs to spin that they were “improving” by focusing on the customers. Know who their customers are? Their shareholders. It’s all about profit and greed.

    Quality is not a way of life or a priority. It’s “nice to have” and something to be done to improve the bottom line, but when was the last time you read about any CEO making it equal with the rest of the business?

    Quality is no longer considered part of the culture, not when jobs are being shipped overseas and the bottom line is improved by seeking the cheapest labor force.

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