Guest Editorial

Epstein E-mail Author

Raising Federal Standards

If ISO 9000 is good enough for industry, it should be good enough for government.

As recently as 10 years ago, the general public would have considered government service and quality service incongruous. Unfortunately, this perception was based on fact. Government workers followed regulations religiously, as conformance was an indicator of satisfactory performance. Workers felt helpless, frustrated and chained down by these rigid expectations.

Times have changed, and the public is beginning to notice a difference. Service is improving. The government is going high-tech, which means the public can see, understand and communicate with the government more easily. Government Web pages abound, and more information is available than can be absorbed. Some employees are starting to feel more empowered and less frustrated.

Among the initiatives driving quality in the government are:

Qdbullet Reinvention laboratories: Organizations are permitted to test new and better approaches and deviate from internal regulations if the regulations don't make sense.

Qdbullet The Government Performance and Results Act: Organizations are required by law to define their performance in terms of goals that are of value to their customers, measure their performance in achieving these goals, and report their results to Congress.

Qdbullet Acquisition reform: Organizations are expected to simplify acquisitions, eliminate unnecessary paperwork, use electronic commerce, reduce contractor oversight, use commercial practices and commercial standards, achieve single processes, reduce government standards, use performance contracting, and buy based on value rather than price alone.

Qdbullet President's Quality Award Program: Organizations are recognized for their success in quality customer service and continuous improvement through the application of specified award criteria and a numeric rating system.

The government is definitely moving in the right direction; however, there is still a long road to traverse. What more can government be expected to do? When we look to the private sector, we notice one factor that has been strangely absent from government: More than 225,000 private organizations have been registered to ISO 9000, the only quality management system known around the world. Industry in general, and the automotive, medical device, telecommunications and aerospace sectors in particular, have based their quality management systems on ISO 9000. If this standard is good enough for industry, it should be good enough for government.

It's not that those in government aren't aware of ISO 9000. They like it well enough to impose quality management systems based on ISO 9000 on their contractors. Regulatory agencies also think ISO 9000 is good enough to promote in their regulated industries. Among such regulatory agencies are the Food and Drug Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Energy. The FDA rewrote its longtime Good Manufacturing Practices regulation to conform to the requirements of ISO 9000. If those in government recognize that ISO 9000 is good for industry, why don't they believe it's good for government? Clearly, they need to rethink ISO 9000's possible applications in government and consider implementing it as their internal quality management system. ISO is as applicable to service providing organizations as it is to manufacturing organizations.

To be fair, several government agencies have implemented ISO 9000 internally by becoming ISO 9000-registered. Still more are in the process of registration. However, this represents only a small fraction of the agencies that could adopt ISO 9000 as their internal quality management system.

Why should ISO 9000 be implemented in the government? There are several benefits of ISO 9000 that are not found with the other initiatives currently being applied. ISO 9000 is a quality management system, not a program with a beginning and an end, a series of unrelated improvement projects or a set of award criteria. It is an ongoing management process that requires continual improvement and customer satisfaction. It requires that the system be documented to understand the processes, have repeatable processes, establish a baseline from which to improve and have a system that endures. It is a holistic system that encompasses all those who impact the quality of the products or services, and assigns responsibilities and authorities to all involved. It is a foundational or basic system, implying that you must first learn to walk before you can run. In other words, it is unrealistic to expect an organization to achieve a President's Quality Award if the organization doesn't have a basic quality management system in place. It allows the government to compete with the private sector and supports the government policy of using commercial practices. Finally, it is recognized around the world. There is every reason to adopt ISO 9000 in the government and no reason not to. It's time for the government to catch up with industry standards.

About the author

Ira Epstein is president of Value Management Associates. Previously, he worked for the Department of Defense for 32 years. He has worked with ISO TC 176 for more than 10 years and is an international working group chair. Epstein teaches his "ISO 9000 for Experts" course for the American Society for Quality. He may be reached by telephone at (703) 768-5212 or via e-mail at .

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