Quality Management in the Public Sector: Applying Lean Concepts to Customer Service in a Consolidated Government Office

By McNary, Lisa D. | Public Administration Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Quality Management in the Public Sector: Applying Lean Concepts to Customer Service in a Consolidated Government Office


McNary, Lisa D., Public Administration Quarterly


THE STATE OF QUALITY MANAGEMENT IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR

With the establishment of the Baldrige Award for quality in 1987 and the U.S. Federal Quality Institute to initiate Total Quality Management throughout the government in 1988, there was hope in the Quality field that the many successes of the private sector would take hold in the public sector (Warner, 1993). The 1993 document, From red tape to results: Creating a government that works better and costs less, revealed some impressive results with quality principles that increased efficiency and effectiveness throughout the federal government (Sinha, 1999). By the early 1990s, 40 states had some type of quality program (Warner, 1993).

Nonetheless, the results of Quality Management in the public sector have been mixed (Boyne & Walker, 2002; Warner, 1993) in spite of the New Public Management paradigm. (1) Some of the barriers specific to the public sector that plague quality initiatives include:

--The lack of competition and profit motive in the public sector provides little incentive to overcome the status quo (Dewhurst et al., 1999). Though Streib and Willoughby (2005) contend that scarce resources in the public sector can actually spur innovation depending on the organization, the chronic lack of resources faced by many agencies within a given government entity forces competition for funds, which diminishes the cooperative systems view of Quality Management (Deming, 1993; Dewhurst et al., 1999).

--Most political elected and appointed officials--who often control the work of non-elected employees--need quick, short-term results to stay in office (From quality, 1997; Teicher et al., 2002), and that focus is antithetical to the long-term focus of Quality Management, which often requires bold decisions that risk-aversive officials are not used to making. Indeed, some critics contend that Quality Management in the public sector takes on the work of elected officials and thus, actually diminishes the accountability of those elected officials (Kelly, 1998).

--Another issue is the bureaucratic organizational structure of the government that prevents the integration of quality principles (i.e., top management support, customer focus, systems view, cross-functional employee teams, supplier relationships, continual improvement, etc.) necessary for success (Dewhurst et al., 1999; From quality, 1997). Public sector critics also claim that increased customer service is actually more costly in a bureaucratic organization, at least in the short-term (Kelly, 1998).

--The definition of the customer is another issue, making the processes more difficult to measure (Teicher et al., 2002). Further, the customer, which is the focus of quality management, is less clear in the government, since it serves multiple and often competing stakeholders (Dewhurst et al., 1999; From quality, 1997). There is debate whether governments have "customers," in the economics and marketing sense of the term, at all when they have a monopoly on given services, and thus, there is no choice (Dewhurst et al., 1999). Indeed, customers in the private sector can be segmented and treated with different levels of service, something which cannot be done in a government whose mandate is equal treatment of citizens (Sinha, 1999).

Another broader issue is the evolution of the field of quality itself, which has gone through several life cycles as differing tools and techniques become popular (Goeke & Offodile, 2005). In discussing the seminal work of Barley and Kunda (1992), David & Strang (2006) show that as managerial ideologies evolve, they swing back and forth between rational or "hard" techniques and normative or "soft" techniques, and in doing so--the ideology can reinvent itself. Quality Management has had a similar evolution--coming out of the technical area of "quality control" (hard), moving into the broader system-wide organizational strategy (soft), and now reverting back to a more technical state (hard). …

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