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Quality Government

Many government agencies are now beginning to receive fan mail from their customers.

by A. Blanton Godfrey

Quality government -- sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? And yet, some of the most exciting progress made in quality management in the past few years has been in government. Federal agencies, state government departments and local governments have been rushing into quality management initiatives at a record pace. We are witnessing a true revolution in government services, spurred by Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review, the Federal Quality Institute, 42 state quality award programs, the U.S. Air Force and Army's adoption of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria and numerous other initiatives. We are discovering that better government often costs less.

For many years, government agencies were plagued by the same beliefs of many other businesses and industries: "We're different," "It's hard to measure the quality of government service," "We don't have competitors, so why should we improve?" and the most insidious, "We don't really have customers."

Juran Institute's Service Industries Group has been working with government agencies in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Pete Robustelli, head of the group, admits that most government organizations have only climbed the first few rungs of tall ladders, but real changes in government services are happening. Many are rediscovering what leading companies found out in the past 10 years: It really is possible to drive down costs while improving quality. In fact, many are discovering that, as in product quality, improving service quality is often the key to reducing costs.

Some of the most exciting and most visible changes are happening in the U.S. Customs Service. Gore's recent book, The Best Kept Secrets in Government, gives many examples. One of Customs' front-line managers, Tommy Roland, shows his enthusiasm as he talks about his people. 

"The stuff they're doing now is defining where Customs is going," says Roland. "I'm thrilled to be a part of that.  They use their intuition, their creativity, their imagination on the job.  It's really beautiful to watch them.  I feel like the coach of some awesome basketball team."

Customs has made many changes in the way it protects the American public from dangerous and illegal imports. They are using almost all of the tools of quality management. They are creating strategic partnerships with airlines, manufacturers and ports. The Business Anti-Smuggling Coalition, led by Mattel Inc., is stopping drug smugglers from using shipments of toys and other goods from overseas. A majority of the airlines flying into Miami are working closely with Customs to provide information about passengers and cargo to make searches more effective and efficient. This cooperation not only helps Customs do its job better, it provides much quicker service for passengers moving through Customs checkpoints.

These changes are tangible. Amaury Zuriarrain, the deputy director of the department that runs Miami International Airport, states: "These partnerships are changing the whole environment here. There's an energy at this airport that I've never felt in my 22 years here. The passengers are noticing improvements, too."

One of the most important changes Customs made was flattening the organization. They cut their Washington headquarters staff by a third, eliminated all seven regional offices and closed 43 district offices. This sent a loud and clear message of trust to the field offices at the 301 ports, the people actually doing the day-to-day work.

The U.S. government has also found gold in the procurement processes. The government used to do more than $50 worth of paperwork for every small purchase -- even for $3 or $4 items. Now they have eliminated the paperwork and issue special Visa cards to the people who need these items. With their enormous buying power, the government pays no annual fees or interest for these cards, and even gets cash rebates for paying the bills on time.

The government has also begun to question its long-standing practices of unique specifications and complex and clumsy contracting procedures. Now they are buying T-shirts and many other products according to standard commercial design. By using more standard commercial parts on the contract for the new C-17 cargo plane, the costs were reduced by $2.7 billion.

These changes in government are beginning to be noticed. The international trade community in Miami named Customs Commissioner George Weiss their "Man of the Year." An independent survey by Dalbar Inc. picked the Social Security Administration as the best toll-free telephone service, beating out companies such as Xerox, Southwest Airlines, L.L. Bean and Disney. More important, many government agencies are now beginning to receive fan mail from their customers, who are dazed by the new levels of government service.

About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc. at 11 River Road, Wilton, CT 06897. He can be reached by e-mail at godfrey@netaxis.com.

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