A Quality Idea for Government — Now in Recyclable Packaging

By J.F. McKenna

The cover story’s introductory paragraphs are quite timely.

Good enough for government work.

So goes the public apologia. America is not merely the land of the free. It’s the home of the lousy city service, the cumbersome state bureaucracy, and the perk-loving, free-lunching, check-kiting Congress from Hell.

But, hey, that’s the way government is, right?

Timely prose. And recyclable, no less. I tapped out those sentences as a staff writer and editor for Industry Week magazine nearly 20 years ago.

Talk about shelf life.

Americans should not be seeing government the way it is and asking why. Instead, like George Bernard Shaw, they should be seeing government the way it could be and asking why not. And the way it could be is efficient, cost-effective and customer-driven.

Talk about tilting at windmills.

Inspired by the research and experiences of visionary leaders in management and public service, this journalistic Don Quixote found himself as a herald for what I labeled Total Quality Government.

“[The] proposition of government of, by and for the customer isn’t all that farfetched,” I told my executive-suite readers. “Public-service visionaries have successfully introduced Total Quality Management ideas and techniques into a variety of government programs. This is something even filmmaker Frank Capra couldn’t have dreams of: Mr. Deming Goes to Washington…and the Statehouse…City Hall.”

I was inspired by onetime Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, who had led Madison, Wis., through an unprecedented quality transformation in the 1980s. I was wholly impressed by his customer-first success story in the otherwise bland pages of Harvard Business Review. And this grandson of an old-time city politician swooned over the proselytizing of David Carr and Ian Littman, co-authors of Excellence in Government: Total Quality Management in the 1990s.

“Using modern quality management to save one out of every five dollars in government operations costs, while actually improving services to the public, is a realistic and maybe even a modest goal,” Carr told me. “Private companies have saved as much, and some public agencies are well on their way.”

Carr and Littman could point to many government successes. For example, they cited productivity-improvement efforts in 265 governmental programs for 1990 alone and predicted savings upwards of $100 billion a year at the federal level.

My Industry Week bosses and our readers were sold on optimism accompanied by verifiable results. We put together an 18-month road show to promote Total Quality Government and gain more disciples. In 1993, I found myself on a Beltway dais with an enthusiastic, cerebral congressman who spoke fluent Quality. The Georgia lawmaker understood that elected officials would ultimately determine whether TQG would win a permanent place on the nation’s agenda. His name was Newt Gingrich, and he planned to take these very ideas to his next promotion, as Speaker of the House.

Gingrich’s political twin, then-Pennsylvania Congressman Don Ritter, was equally committed to Total Quality Government. “My main aim,” he said, “is to make this a principal national issue on the radar screens of the great political debate.” But Ritter admitted it wasn’t on many radar screens in Congress, which at the time I described as little more than a lab for the study of organized inaction.

Fast forward to the present. Total Quality Management still works effectively in the private sector and certain largely uncharted areas of the public sector. Ian Littman observed that Congress “is as archaic as you can get,” and he has yet to be proven wrong. State and local governments still can’t grasp that delivering a quality services to “customers” takes real commitment and workable strategies, not promises attached to spending proposals. As Lloyd Dobbins and Clare Crawford-Mason said in their 1991 book Quality or Else: The Revolution in World Business, “quality is a change in structure and purpose of an organization.”

Myself, I still like to tilt at windmills — though I’m a bit more discerning about the windmills I challenge these days.

And I still have a reusable intro for a magazine story. Check back with me in 2031.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant. In the early 1990s, he co-chaired Total Quality Government conferences in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Contact him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .

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  1. […] of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”  (See A Quality Idea for Government — Now in Recyclable Packaging , CBR […]

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