It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that as a society we’re fixated on quality. We demand quality from our vehicles, our markets, and increasingly from our governments.
But for all of this talk, quality is still a little ill-defined—it has various definitions and it means different things in different contexts. Everyone wants to improve quality, but what does that mean in the public sector? What makes a good quality government?
Whenever I talk to people about quality management in their organization, I start by asking them why their organization exists: when everyone goes into the office every day, what are they working to accomplish? What is the ultimate goal?
In the private sector the answer can usually be summarized by one symbol: $, and by extension, growing sales or profits. But in the public sector things are different and each organization and department is working to bring their view of quality to life. To name a few: educators want to empower their students with knowledge and skills, health care workers want to improve the quality and length of life for their patients, and police officers want to create safe neighbourhoods and catch criminals. In every case, there’s an understood goal for the quality of service delivered to customer-stakeholders. The problem arises with the process: it’s usually unclear. Since, processes exist to deliver these services to their customers; this is where the conversation typically breaks down.
Open data lets us as a society make evidence based decisions about the future.
Processes aren’t sexy, but they are essential. An optimized process can make a big difference. Processes also govern how employees and civil servants act and respond to situations; they’re the tools that organizations use in the pursuit of their goals. But to be improved, a process needs to be clearly defined, both in terms of end to end steps, and the goal that is to be accomplished.
This gives us our first test for quality in the public sphere. For every process that makes up the delivery of a service, we need to start by asking: “how does this process help us accomplish our main goal?” If the answer is unclear, data needs to be gathered and the process needs to be examined. Every department accomplishes thousands of tasks every day, and while many of those tasks add value, some don’t. Said another way, while worthwhile results can be achieved using imperfect processes, outcomes won’t be optimized
Let’s consider the improvement to income tax forms in the last decade. Ten years ago, the majority of Canadians used the postal service to mail their manually completed, simple tax forms with all the necessary receipts. Today, many of us fill out our forms on-line and keep the receipts at home. Not only does this make the process of paying taxes easier for the citizen, it increases timeliness and accuracy while simplifying shipping and receipt storage for the government. It’s win-win. A modern tax submission process is just one example of the benefits that can come from improving the quality of government service delivery.
Government is in a unique (and enviable) position when it comes to choosing where they can innovate next: because governments across the world aren’t in direct competition with one another, they can borrow and tweak service delivery ideas and processes from one another freely. Simply because the Government of Canada has solved a given problem one way for 150 years doesn’t mean that a rural village in India hasn’t come up with a way to solve that same problem better, faster, or cheaper. Familiarity is not a reason to cling to outdated processes.
Similarly, just because governments have historically held valuable public sector data doesn’t mean that they’ll come up with the most creative ways to use it. The last few years have seen story after story of public data in the hands of citizens being used for broad social good in extremely creative ways. This data is also a treasure trove of empirical feedback on policies. Open data lets us as a society make evidence based decisions about the future.
At its core, increasing the quality of our governments is about understanding what is important to us, the citizens. These improvements are about actively engaging everyday citizens to help make government work better. Collectively, we need to ask, “given all the technological and social resources we have access to here and now, what’s the best way to achieve our goal?” Shaving percentage points off of turnaround times and response rates are very important, but we need to keep an eye on the big picture.
We’re only just starting to uncover the answers, and the best solutions have yet to be invented. We need to demand a culture from our government that embraces and institutes the most effective ideas; we need to demand the best to get the government we deserve.