Dear Elected Official, Let’s Talk Quality…

By Joselyn Biira Mwine

Government is the largest service provider in any country. While the private sector has recognised that change is constant, government has to adapt as well. Governments- local or otherwise- are under increasing pressure around the world to provide results that matter to the public, often within severe resource constraints. The slightest change in public services drastically impacts millions of citizens. What’s more, when government tightens its belt in tough economic times, the entire country feels the squeeze. With less money to pay for the full spectrum of government services, effectively managing the available resources and processes, and working together as a system, is a must.

So what solutions are out there?

Most people would not look to quality management systems such as ISO 9001 as a source of innovation, least of all in the realm of government. But they would be surprised to learn that ISO 9001 has the potential to “clean up” bureaucracy and the public sector in the country. In fact, ISO 9001 is a model for how government can – and should – cut spending by leveraging quality management systems. ISO 9001 is by far the world’s most established quality framework, currently being used by over 1.5 million organizations in 191 countries. Those are some impressive numbers – and among the primary reasons why the public sector is sitting up and taking notice.

Here are just eight benefits that government could attain by implementing a quality management system based on ISO 9001.

  • Improve performance and measurement
  • Support the achievement of strategic objectives
  • Provide a factual approach to decision making
  • Identify and address risks and opportunities to enhance service delivery
  • Reduce duplication
  • Maximize efficiencies
  • Enhance service delivery
  • Provide a framework for continual improvement
  • Improve citizen, customer and stakeholder satisfaction

So what is the bottom line? Whether we like it or not, the private sector has raised the bar for customer service and is hands-down better at serving its clients. It is no wonder, therefore, that citizens expect the same from government now and want ministries, departments and agencies to emulate private sector practices. Does this mean government should be run like a business? Of course not, it simply means that any entity that ignores these realities will eventually “go out of business” – whether or not it is a business.

Using ISO 9001 for quality management to provide efficient and reliable services vital to the lives of millions of people would help meaningfully relieve this pressure. The acclaimed quality management standard provides a tried and tested framework for managing an organization’s processes and activities. ISO 9001 can help government for the same reason it helps large corporations. It provides management control of diverse operations by allowing objectives to be rolled out to frontline units with clear and transparent measures, enhancing the flow and visibility of information for management, and integrating processes to achieve better service delivery and customer satisfaction.

To make government work in the 21st century demands the same basic “quality approach” as in any business. Whether in the public or private sector, without customers, or with unhappy customers or stakeholders, any organization is in peril! Let’s start with local authorities, the subject of most of the debate about governance today. Local governments are the main service providers to citizens and their efficient and reliable performance is vital to the lives of millions of people. How many public services? How should the services be financed? How much and where should we cut? A good place to start is discussing how to implement ISO 9001, making the necessary decisions to bring efficient and reliable services in line with customer needs and expectations. That is because, in re-thinking government, the first thing to do is to improve the quality of urban public goods and services, and the governance that is behind them. And this is where ISO 18091:2019 Guidelines for the application of ISO 9001 in local government can make a difference. Published in early 2014, ISO 18091 is directed at the public sector that gives guidelines for the implementation of ISO 9001 in local government. With a robust quality management system in place, a local government can focus on satisfying the needs and expectations of the community. It is an essential roadmap for local governments to organize themselves in a comprehensive way, focusing on continual improvement where it matters.

It aims to:

  • Empower citizens and governments together
  • Ensure not only effectiveness but legitimacy
  • Provide a common language and understanding between politicians and technicians, and enable comparability across the country and other local governments
  • Serve the local population by making politically viable those things that are technically indispensable
  • Create a useful tool for the UN Sustainable Development Goals and objectives for a sustainable world and smart cities
  • Produce reliability – essential for society

ISO 18091 constitutes an excellent tool for local governments to reassure citizens that their needs and expectations are fully understood and met on a consistent basis and in a timely manner. By strengthening integrity in local governance, we can build stronger regional and national governments and support international efforts.

Certification is necessary to achieve a government’s objectives of reliability, responsiveness and transparency. Once a government is delivering the end goods, it needs to look beyond conformance to performance in order to maintain its high standards and credibility. Re-thinking quality in government will help, but it still won’t make government competitive for the 21st century. To do that, we will need to completely design and position government to make it fit for the challenges of our dawning century – for example by giving government officials the flexibility, tools and resources they need to make a results-oriented government succeed while demanding accountability. A mammoth task by all accounts, but one that is possible.

The writer is the Public Relations Officer at Uganda National Bureau of Standards.