Accreditation: It's the right thing to do

John Ostrowski
Management Consultant
JOMC, Vancouver, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

December 15, 1997 was a historic day for APWA's accreditation program. On that day the City of Greeley, CO and the Village of Schaumburg, IL became the first two accredited agencies in North America. In the past ten years, an additional 37 agencies, making a current total of 39, have joined the ranks, with 37 in the United States and two in Canadian provinces.

Throughout 2007, accredited agencies, their staff members, evaluators, and elected officials will be sharing their experiences with the program. The second article in the series is presented below. For more information about the program, contact Ann Daniels at adaniels@apwa.net or (816) 595-5223, or visit the website at www.apwa.net/About/Accreditation/.

Have you been looking for a way to waste your agency's time and money and think that accreditation might be just what you need? I used to think that. I don't anymore. Now that I have your attention, maybe I should explain.

In the beginning, there was the Management Practices Manual. And it was good but not good enough. So public works officials went throughout the land testing the manual to see if the practices made sense and to see if the manual could be used for accreditation. This was a long time ago. I think it was 1991 but it could have been a year earlier.

I was on one of the assessment teams that went out to test the practices. When I came back from that trip I took another look at my agency and did a quick self-assessment using the Personal Time Equivalent method. I prepared a spreadsheet listing all of the management practices that applied to my agency. I then estimated how long it would take me to get documentation ready to pass accreditation on all the practices if I was doing the whole job myself. I then asked my division managers to do the same thing with their divisions to compare to mine. I also told them not to spend more than two hours doing it because that's how long it took me to do it watching football on a Sunday afternoon.

What we came up with was a bar chart that showed where we were strong and where we were weak. We also got an estimate of how much time it would take us to get ready for accreditation and it was really clear that it would be at least a three-year effort. For that effort we got a certificate and I didn't see the cost/benefit ratio working out very well.

So I spent the next few years telling people that they ought to at least do what I did but they ought to be careful about investing time and money in something that didn't seem to generate much benefit.

Then I retired in 1998 and Dennis Ross, who was with APWA then, thought I might have time on my hands and called me to help with a site visit. I remember my reaction. I said that I'd been badmouthing the program for long enough and it was about time I found out what's really going on.

I went on those first site visits with an unprepared speech that always came out the same. I told people that I'd been a doubter and that I was anxious to find out why they thought the program was worth their time and money. I found that most of the people I met hadn't taken my approach and had gotten scared off by the size of the project. They talked about intangibles and things that just can't have a dollar value assigned to them for calculating benefits.

I even found some people who got into the program for what I thought of as the wrong reason. They had a city manager that wanted to have accredited departments. Or they had an elected body that liked the sound of having an accredited public works department.

As time went on I started to see another picture forming, however. I started to see that the agencies that were doing it right had to involve a lot of people in the organization to make it work. I never thought that my Personal Time Equivalent method of estimating the workload would be the way the work actually would be done. I always knew that the process would involve most of the leadership of the organization and more. But the people who've gotten the most out of this process used it as a team building opportunity.

For a new public works director, this is a double opportunity. The director can be involved in a team building activity and place his or her stamp of approval on everything the agency does in a non-threatening way.

I also realized after a while that I had been wrong about something for a long time without realizing it. When I was a public works director I thought the information flow was pretty good in my organization and I unknowingly had assumed that everyone knew what I knew. I was wrong and I discovered this while interviewing some blue-collar folks on a site visit. They told me that through the accreditation process they had come to better understand what administration was all about. They had to look at their jobs from the perspective of management and they got a better sense of being on the same team and understood why some seemingly incomprehensible decisions were made.

I also found that the agencies that did this right were actually improving their processes as they got ready for their accreditation visit. They didn't just document what they were doing but took the opportunity to see if they could do better.

But what about financial benefits? Could anyone actually show me the money? As it turns out the answer is woven into the observation in the last paragraph about improving processes. When Berkeley first went through accreditation they found that they could improve their liability claims process and save many times more than the cost of accreditation.

Since I started my quest for the benefits of accreditation I've become a convert and an advocate. If I were a public works director today, I would definitely get my agency accredited. I was wrong to think that there wasn't a payoff to the process. If you're still back where I was in the early 90's you're wrong, too. I'm not saying that accreditation is for everybody. If your agency is in a crisis mode, you might not have the time to put into accreditation right now. You won't be in a crisis mode forever, however, so put it on your list for later. If you simply don't have the resources right now you probably can't do it either. Everyone else should be calling Ann Daniels to get on the waiting list.

John Ostrowski is a former Public Works Director for the City of Vancouver, Washington and was named one of APWA's Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year in 1998. A current member of the Leadership and Management Committee, he is a past member of the Engineering and Technology Committee, Institute of Municipal Engineers, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory Working Committee. He can be reached at (360) 573-7594 or ostrowj@pacifier.com.