Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Getting Past the Hype: Issues in Starting a Public Sector TQM Program

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Getting Past the Hype: Issues in Starting a Public Sector TQM Program

Article excerpt


Efforts to change management initiatives in the public sector have their origins in the reform efforts of the 1960s. Cabinet systems of executive organization and policy staffs for the governor and the legislature were the cornerstone of these changes. The period of the early 1970s was viewed as the renaissance of state government (Committee for Economic Development, 1967, 1976; National Governors' Association, 1978; Sabato, 1983; Cox, 1984). These efforts were directed primarily toward the policy-making capacity of state government rather than internal management. A few efforts, such as the introduction of a post-audit capacity for either the executive or legislative branch, addressed management concerns. But few states followed the lead of the federal government which added a management oversight responsibility at the White House (the creation of OMB out of the Bureau of the Budget) and significantly revamped personnel capacity.

Yet the fundamental question of management capacity was not ignored. Over time a variety of new management techniques was introduced. These efforts seemed to parallel the maturation of the ideas of academics who beginning in the 1960s were advocating an increased role for street-level bureaucrats and a more diverse workforce.(1) The Volcker Commission Report (National Commission on the Public Service, 1989), Reinventing Government (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992), and the Winter Commission Report (National Commission on the State and Local Public Service, 1993) are the progeny of those less well-known efforts.

For more than a decade both the public and private sectors have used the concepts of Total Quality Management (TQM) as the foundation for management improvement initiatives. While most of the publicity has focused on activities in the private sector (often because the federal government set up awards, such as the Malcolm Baldridge award, to recognize private, not public, sector initiatives), there are many agencies at all three levels of government actively seeking to change management practice through TQM, strategic management, and other similar techniques. For example, some 30 states (since 1992) have some type of TQM effort underway and there are similar efforts in hundreds of cities, both large and small.

The collective wisdom(2) derived from these decade-long efforts are fourfold: the public sector is a more complex environment to introduce change than the private sector; top-down initiatives cannot work; a service or customer focus is not enough in the public sector; and finally the concept of quality must be redefined before it can be applied to many public agencies.

Having said that, the introduction of management change efforts such as TQM is not easy. The problems and barriers to successful implementation are many and, therefore, much like the private sector, the number of good starts far exceeds the number of successful implementation efforts. In exploring the issues anticipated in starting the project and the approaches used to address those issues, it is possible to help others avoid the mistakes and delays that have defeated TQM at the implementation stage.


It is in this context that the TQM effort was begun in New Mexico. The initiative could not begin without a careful analysis of the four factors cited above. That analysis not only represented the baseline assumptions that would inform the project, but also dictated the approach taken to implement the project. The following explores both the assumptions and experiences as the project was begun. The lessons learned are both an affirmation of those assumptions and a caution about the problems that proved more immune to resolution than had been expected.


There is a presumption shared by those inside and outside government that one of the barriers to effective management in the public sector is the nature of the personnel system. …

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