Accreditation: Certifying public works excellence
Public works professionals are talking to themselves these days. Actually, they are asking themselves questions, like: * Are our performance and productivity levels as high as we want them to be? * Is our agency well managed? How would we know? * Would we subject our operations to an external review?
The answers are not easy, but they do exist. Accreditation is the key. After more than 10 years of watching other public sector organizations undergo the process, the American Public Works Association has finally developed an accreditation program. The program was tested by a dozen public works departments of various sizes to validate its applicability to public works as a whole.
Why pursue accreditation? That question was answered by Kelly Tzoumis, professor of policy studies at Roosevelt University, Chicago, and Kathleen Delaney, an administrative analyst in Skokie, Ill., who is coordinating the accreditation efforts of the city’s public works department. In an article in the journal Public Works Management & Policy, the two note: “There is a historical tension between accountability and allowing government administrators the discretion necessary for implementation. Government administrators are recognized as having delegated policy-making authority through implementation decision-making. However, public administration suffers from cynicism that questions the legitimacy of government, which partially comes from concerns about corruption by special interests. The delegated authority necessary for implementation – especially in a highly technical and information-driven society – can be troubling for a democracy.”
According to Tzoumis and Delaney, governments at all levels have a responsibility, indeed, a duty, to be accountable to the citizens they serve in order to mitigate the cynicism that is part and parcel of Americans’ feelings about government. In the public works arena, accreditation is one way for government to achieve that accountability.
Neil Nyberg answers the question more simply. “Accreditation is a way to help agencies engage in continuous improvement in a pragmatic way,” says Nyberg, general manager of operations for Coquitlam in British Columbia and chair of APWA’s Accreditation Council. (Currently, Coquitlam’s public works department is the only one in Canada to hold APWA accreditation.)
It also is a way to get struggling departments back on the right track. In Berkeley, Calif., a barrage of complaints about the public works department prompted Mayor Shirley Dean to take action. “I had read about accreditation,” she says. “So I put it on the city council agenda and got approval to go after it. The public works director thought it was a great idea and that it would bring the department together.” (Berkeley has a new public works director since the city began working towards accreditation.) Berkeley’s situation is unusual in that the mayor jump-started the accreditation process. Ironically, some public works professionals insist that accreditation is one way to get their cities’ elected officials’ attention.
Dean, however, is well aware of the importance of the public works function. “The public works department deals with a lot of issues that are vitally important to public safety and public health,” she says. “It is extremely important that they get their message across. They are as important to a city as police and firefighters, and people need to know that.” (Berkeley just underwent its site visit, the final stage in the accreditation process, and should be hearing the results soon.)
APWA’s approach to accreditation is voluntary, self-motivated and objective. It includes a total of 462 Best Management Practices in 31 categories, covering everything from finance to right-of-way permits to cemeteries. The practices, which appear in the third edition of the Public Works Management Practices Manual, provide general guidance on what a public works agency should be doing and not how it should be done.
That approach allows each agency to tailor its practices to meet local conditions. (Intended to provide a framework for a systematic and objective evaluation of virtually any public works agency, most of the recommended practices call for some form of formal written policy, practice or procedure.)
The process involves three basic phases: self-assessment, improvement and accreditation; the latter is designed to verify and recognize an agency conforming to established management practices. Thus far, three cities – Greeley, Colo.; Schaumburg, Ill.; and Coquitlam – have completed the process of accreditation. more than a dozen other agencies in both cities and counties are in various stages of doing so.
A catalyst for improvement
The self-assessment phase can be treated simply as a checklist or as a major element in strategic planning. It assumes that an agency already has a fundamentally sound corporate structure that can be improved.
Self-assessment is not intended to be a substitute for sound management but, rather, a tool for allowing an agency to evaluate its management practices and identify areas in need of improvement. It can serve as a needs assessment or inventory; a method for establishing goals for change; or a tool for fixing problems.
Self-assessment is designed to serve as a catalyst for a system of continuous improvement and as a tool for determining how policies, practices and procedures compare to industry standards. Public works agencies are encouraged to use the recommended practices as models for developing or improving existing practices.
Agencies conducting serious self-assessments have reported significant increases in productivity, team-building, employee job satisfaction and standardization of procedures, as well as a reduction in operating costs. In conducting a useful self-assessment, an agency should: * identify what it is doing well and what it needs to improve upon; * involve employees in the improvement process; * organize areas of improvement activities and set priorities for them; * foster communication and teamwork; and * develop strategic plans.
The self-assessment phase does not involve benchmarking, setting performance standards or re-making an agency to look like another one; it is merely a process to determine if an agency’s practices fit the specific needs of the city or county in which it operates. (However, complying with the recommended practices can ensure an agency that it does just that.) The process allows field personnel to evaluate their department from top to bottom, learn more about the entire department and suggest changes.
Besides APWA’s self-assessment process, there are a number of methods of gathering the information necessary for a department’s self-evaluation. Using APWA’s accreditation guidelines, Urbana, Calif., examined four approaches – including self-assessment – for evaluating the effectiveness of its public works department. Based on the experience of other public works departments, the city also considered public opinion surveys, benchmarking and performance measurement.
According to Barbara Stiehl, a former Urbana public works department intern, Urbana used a public opinion survey in 1991 to gauge the public’s perception of its public works department. The results were mixed: the department gathered valuable information about the city’s recycling program and information about the public’s satisfaction with certain goods and services. However, in her report on the Urbana process, “Evaluating Public Works Departments: Looking in the Mirror,” Stiehl points out that the major disadvantage of the public opinion survey is that it, quite naturally, measures individual perceptions, and those perceptions vary based on experience and the individual’s personal view of government.
Benchmarking, on the other hand, involves measuring the practices of a specific department against what are considered Best Practices in the field. It entails establishing goals or objectives; measuring existing practices against those goals; setting priorities for improvements; and developing methods for measuring the improvements against the goals.
Stiehl notes that Alameda County, Calif., hired a consultant to perform a benchmarking study to discover how its public works department compared to others. The process involved the selection of a 10-employee team that examined 120 activities performed by the county’s public works department and narrowed those activities down to the 20 it wanted to evaluate.
The team then consulted a list of 65 communities offered as potential benchmarking partners (the list was provided by the International City/County Management Association, APWA and the consultant) and winnowed that number down to 15. Surveys were sent to the 15 communities, and team members made site visits.
Unlike the public opinion surveys, benchmarking and self-assessment, performance measurement involves a significant amount of math. Agencies decide what they want to improve and develop input/output equations that measure the present efficiency of those particular areas. Stiehl uses the example of street repair: Linear feet of sidewalk repaired (output) compared to manhours required for the repair (input).
Dayton, Ohio, used performance measurement to evaluate its solid waste disposal system, using equations that measured the amount of collected materials, divided into the costs of the collection programs and into the number of households served. Additionally, the total amount of collected materials was divided by the total number of employees in each collection program.
Based on her examination of the issue, Stiehl concluded that, while all evaluation methods have their advantages, the APWA’s self-assessment approach, though time-consuming, offers the most comprehensive examination of an agency. It, too, has disadvantages: Employees must be pulled from the field, and certain “soft costs” cannot easily be addressed in a budget.
The major advantages of self-assessment, however, far outweigh the minuses. Legal liability, Stiehl says, is greater when no documentation exists to support existing practices. And she notes that some insurance agencies have agreed to reimburse public works departments part of the costs of pursuing the self-assessment process.
The second phase in gaining accreditation follows directly from the self-assessment. The improvement phase offers opportunities for the agency to form teams that will be involved in any decision-making. During the second phase – the longest phase in the entire process – results of self-assessment are studied, and recommendations for specific improvements are made. Improvements could include the development of new policies, procedures and methods of operation, or the revision of old ones. The final phase involves an on-site evaluation by an outside group of APWA professionals, who review written records and policies; and interview staff, managers, elected officials and community leaders. The evaluation group also makes field observations.
(The agencies being reviewed pick up the cost of the on-site evaluation. APWA has established a fee schedule for accreditation that is based on the number of functional areas covered by the agency. The organization estimates that accreditation fees for a medium-sized municipal public works department would be less than $10,000 over the two- to three-year process.)
Initial accreditation is for a three-year period, but annual updates are required to ensure continuing compliance. The organization’s accreditation council is in the process of developing guidelines for re-accreditation.
The most immediate obstacle to accreditation is convincing public works departments of its importance. “It hasn’t taken off as quickly as I thought it would,” admits Bill Cook, executive office administrator for Snohomish County, Wash., and a member of APWA’s on-site evaluation team. Cook sees a number of reasons for that. “It’s a big effort,” he says. “And people are waiting to see what the tangible benefits are. Right now, they’re pretty nebulous. Folks are wanting hard-dollar savings – insurance rate reductions and bond rating improvements. In my mind, those are not the reasons to do it.”
In Coquitlam, Nyberg agrees that things have started slowly but insists that the pace will pick up. He says that headline grabbing incidents like the e-coli outbreak in Toronto that killed 10 people who drank tainted water have made the public sit up and take notice. Accreditation may not have prevented the deaths, Nyberg admits, but the incident raised questions about accountability, which accreditation addresses.
“The numbers [of agencies undergoing the accreditation process] are small, but the rate of growth is phenomenal,” Nyberg says. “We’re going to have to scramble in anticipation of the demand (for accreditation professionals). Interest has been sparked by concerns about accountability.”
Bill Sterling is the public works director of Greeley, Colo.