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Frank Holland

Standards

Vive la Revolution! ISO 9000 Enters Government

The idea was to improve efficiency and cut costs, but what started out as a good idea may well become a coup d’état whose time has come.

Published: Thursday, June 5, 2003 - 22:00

Many Americans feel like the winds of change have blown away from them. They turn out on Election Day to provide a gust that blows back to local, state and federal power centers, where the clashing breezes become tornadoes. Consequently, many citizens are left with a sticky, humid feeling of stagnation hanging in the air around them. Deep in the heart of Cajun Country, however, change is brewing. It’s bubbling up from the bottom—fermenting at the lowest levels of government and easing gradually higher. The cities of Crowley and Eunice are reinventing government by registering to ISO 9001.

Quality and crawfish: ISO invades Cajun country
Central Louisiana is an unlikely place to sow the seeds of administrative reform. Because the original regional infrastructure was heavily reliant upon the oil industry, much of the work dried up when oil companies began moving south to the Gulf Shore. A list of Eunice city officials includes monikers such as “Goose,” “Poncho” and “Brother,” and French is still spoken regularly in the twangy, rolling dialect that has come to typify the region. Eunice, like other towns its size, has been hit hard by the recent economic downturn. What separates Eunice from the rest of the herd, however, is its ability to respond to hardship.

Although many cities have cut services and raised taxes in attempts to regain their footing, Eunice has been saving money and adding new services without tax hikes. The city stopped waiting for the winds of change to blow in from Washington or Baton Rouge and began making changes itself. The quality renaissance in Eunice began with the convergence of several integral factors: a proactive mayor, an experienced quality professional and ISO 9001:2000. The movement also had a blueprint about 20 miles to the south: Eunice’s sister city happened to be the first municipality in the country registered to ISO 9001:1994.

Crowley registers to ISO 9001:1994
In 1997, while the economy was still booming, Crowley, Louisiana, elected a new mayor with a penchant for quality. Upon taking office, Isabella dela Houssayerecruited MBA students from the University of Southwestern Louisiana to do a gap analysis of the city’s administration and services. The project began as a means to provide a thorough overview of the city’s services and finances and ended in a quality milestone. After careful consideration and analysis, the students concluded that the city could correct most of its deficiencies by implementing an ISO 9001-based quality management system. Following this recommendation, dela Houssaye made it one of the first items of pursuit in her burgeoning administration. The mayor was intent on bringing accountability back into city departments. Each department head was to be held accountable for everything that happened in his or her department, and dela Houssaye wanted objective evidence. ISO 9001:1994 was key to providing it.

“It took us about 17 months to become registered,” recounts Jackie Babineaux, project manager for the city of Crowley. “We had all of the documentation in place; we just needed the correct forms and procedures to prove it. A lot of it was uncharted water and we had a lot of questions, but, of course, we were the first city to try it.” Crowley was divided into seven distinct departments. The fire department, police department, code enforcement, public works, waste water management, recreation and administration comprised the scope of the ISO 9001 registration efforts, all of which have since improved under registration.

“Our fire department was rated three out of five, but under ISO we’ve reached a two rating,” notes Babineaux. “We also have a hospital registered to an ISO standard as well as several businesses. That’s all in our little town of 14,000.”

The fire department rating is perhaps the most telling sign that an ISO 9001-based QMS can help municipalities reap huge rewards aside from cost savings. “A city’s insurance rate is based on its fire code and rating,” says Jeremy Brenner, ISO project manager for Perry Johnson Registrars Inc. “With a verified quality management system in place, many people speculated that there will be anywhere from a 3- to 8-percent drop in insurance rates for the city.”

The real bonanza is not for the city but for home owners and home buyers who collect savings on homeowner’s insurance. Cheap homeowner’s insurance equals more people buying houses, which in turn pumps more money into the local economy. This also provides an added incentive for companies, both domestic and international, to establish businesses in cities that are ISO 9001-registered. Aside from the cost savings from lower insurance rates (which may be only marginal), companies may value the knowledge that their city of business conforms to international quality standards.

Although the concept of registering a town was new, Babineaux and other city officials ran into all of the same problems that a business might in the process of conforming to ISO 9001. Because Crowley received a grant from the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Louisiana to pursue registration, there was little resistance to the idea. “The public didn’t object to the plan when we presented it,” says Babineaux. “We had a lot of support. People wanted to see accountability, they wanted to see the paper trail, and they wanted to see that we had goals and objectives.”

Accountability for spending has translated into huge savings for Crowley. “We’re experiencing service improvements in every department,” says Babineaux. “Our recreation department has received several awards because of the facelift we’ve given it—a facelift that wouldn’t have been possible without the savings generated by ISO 9000.” The financial benefits of municipality registration seem to pile on top of one another in rapid succession.

Because of a lack of revenue, cities generally look inward to save money. The general response to a fiscal crisis is to cut services and/or raise taxes, neither of which is exceedingly popular among the general population. Under the guidelines established by ISO 9001:2000, Crowley has saved money, bolstered resources and secured additional government funding that wouldn’t have otherwise been available to the city. “We’re seeing federal and state dollars come in, and one of the keys is the accountability of our departments,” Babineaux posits. “Without it, we would have missed out on a lot of grants coming our way.”

The quality revitalization has augmented employee morale as well. Many city employees grow frustrated when problems go unchecked and questions go unanswered due to poor procedural guidelines. Under ISO 9001:2000, corrective action is never in question. Crowley employees fill out a nonconformance or preventive action sheet and the problem is dealt with accordingly the next day. “We want our mechanics to be preventive mechanics and not repair mechanics,” notes Babineaux. “It takes away downtime, and employees can spend more productive time at their post.”

Eunice chooses the upgrade: ISO 9001:2000
Crowley stood alone on the list of registered cities for several years. The city would be asked to make room at the top when a 35-year quality veteran at Cummins Engine Co. moved to Eunice and befriended Lynn Lejeune, the eventual mayor. Robert “Steve” Phillips, a quality professional with an exceptional knowledge of ISO 9000, began the first of many front porch conversations with Phillips about the advantages of an ISO 9001-based QMS registration while Lejeune was running for mayor. Having learned about Phillips’ previous work, she was curious about the effect ISO 9001 registration could have outside of traditional business environments.

After extensive consultation with Babineaux, and with Phillips and Lejeune at the helm, Eunice began its quest for registration. The plan was more than a year in the making, and implementation began in March of this year. With the upcoming transition deadline firmly in mind, Phillips and Lejeune set their sights on a one-year implementation program that would conclude with Eunice’s registration to ISO 9001:2000. The continuous improvement requirement of ISO 9001:2000 was a boon for the city government. With the new standard in place, city officials were expected to improve the city’s services and cut unnecessary costs—and they were expected to document it.

Phillips won over many of the town officials with a no-nonsense presentation on the benefits of registration: “ISO 9001:2000 requires the city government and its staff to say what you do, do what you say, record what you did, check on the results and act on the difference,” the presentation stated. Phillips’ ability to dismiss the jargon and make ISO 9001:2000 accessible to non-quality professionals was perhaps the most important step in the program’s adoption.

Eunice is more than two months into its implementation, and Phillips calculates that the city has saved about $80,000 as a result of corrective and preventive action. “If you extrapolate that to an annual basis, that’s pretty substantial for a town of 11,000 people,” he suggests. “You can take that money and put it right back into services that the town needs or wants without raising taxes.”

City departments often fit into an ISO 9001 QMS like a glove. “The fire department’s maintenance records are the best I’ve ever seen, and they haven’t even been thinking about ISO before now,” says Phillips. “They’re already there, it’s just a matter of recording what they’ve got.” If the implementation process continues to roll smoothly, Eunice should hang its registration certificate on the wall sometime in early 2004, if not at the end of this year.

Spread the word: ISO is coming
In July, Phillips will be the guest speaker at the Louisiana Municipal Association, a gathering of 300 Louisiana mayors and city clerks. He will undoubtedly extol the virtues of registration while citing advancements made by Eunice and Crowley, as well as the first registered city in North America: Ajax, Ontario. A handful of other cities have also begun stirring toward registration, with more towns likely to follow suit after information becomes readily available. As quality professionals can attest, ISO 9001 registration is not exclusive to those clichéd widget manufacturers. The standard provides a means of watching the government and ensuring that positive strides are being made with public funding. “A standard to make sure government is conducted correctly, efficiently and with accountability is a nonpartisan issue with positive ramifications for all Americans,” states Anne Viviani, a Beltway pundit.

Phillips, Lejeune, Babineaux and their teams of dedicated city employees have unleashed an opening salvo on the status quo of city government. With positive externalities springing up regularly, it stands to reason that these cities will cement their place in history as the first of a long line of registered municipalities. Although the movement remains in an embryonic state, municipal registration may prove to be a sweeping, nonpartisan revolution that restores a commitment to quality within our elected officials and public servants.

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Frank Holland

Frank Holland is InsideQuality’s online editor.