Accreditation is continuous quality improvement

Carrie Ricci, Customer Services Coordinator, Contra Costa County, California; Maurice Shiu, Public Works Director, Contra Costa County, California, and member, APWA Accreditation Council

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 43 agencies, making a current total of 45, have joined the ranks, with 43 in the United States and two in Canadian provinces.

Throughout 2007, accredited agencies, their staff members, evaluators, and elected officials have shared their experiences with the program. The twelfth and final 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/.

What got us started
In the mid 90s when Total Quality Management, the Malcolm Baldridge Awards, and other quality initiatives were popular, the Contra Costa County Public Works Department was looking for a systematic way to review our operations and identify areas for improvement. Several senior-level managers went to an APWA Self-Assessment Workshop, and from then on our agency started down the road to become an accredited public works agency.

The Self-Assessment and Accreditation process
There must be commitment to accreditation throughout the entire agency. The process is not easy and it never ends. Accreditation requires agencies to continuously review their operations and ask tough questions, such as: "Why do we do it this way?" and "Is there a better way to do this?" Our agency took six months to review all of the practices in the Public Works Management Practices Manual, which involved a critical look at what we were doing in all areas of public works. Once we identified areas for improvement, we prioritized the list and developed a budget and timeline to complete them within two years.

Contra Costa County Public Works staff are presented the Certificate of Accreditation at a Board of Supervisors meeting.

Benefits of accreditation
Over the last decade we've had many long-time employees retire and their institutional knowledge left with them. Through the accreditation process we developed desk manuals for key positions, reviewed and updated all the department's policies and procedures, and now have a process to review them on a three-year cycle. Having these tools on our department Intranet site helps with training new employees. All staff can now access important information that in the past was either out of date or stored on someone's desk.

Accreditation also forced us to work on the things that are important, but not urgent. For years we had talked about developing Landscape Standards to provide consistency to our developers, but it had always been put on the back burner. The Accreditation Chapter on Parks and Grounds provided us with a framework to develop our own standards. We also had a great safety program for our field employees, but did not put as much emphasis on safety practices for our office employees. We now have a documented Safety Program with bimonthly training for all office staff.

Through the two-year process, we updated our Design and Construction Manuals. This has cut down on the amount of training for new employees and assists employees that rotate into those work groups because they have documented practices to reference.
Our challenge is to keep these documents updated as changes in work practices occur.

Communication is key
During the process we realized how important it is to communicate what we are doing and why. Staff need be part of accreditation and understand why their agency has chosen to go through self-assessment and accreditation. We found that updates at staff meetings, short articles in the monthly employee newsletter, and memos from the Director were helpful in getting information to all employees.

Use other agencies as a resource
Another way to gain insight and assistance with the process is by working with agencies that are going through self-assessment or are already accredited. They can be a great resource. They can help by sharing what is working, what they tried that didn't work, and by providing sample policies and procedures. Some agencies have also helped with peer reviews for some of the accreditation chapters that an agency may be struggling with.

Where we are now
We are preparing for our second reaccreditation in the summer of 2008. People always ask the question, "Do we have to be accredited?" The answer is no! But, can you afford not to go through a similar process? The answer again is no! Change is the only constant in our business. The accreditation program gives us a blueprint to follow, and an outline to constantly update our processes. It has been a very worthwhile endeavor for our department.

Carrie Ricci can be reached at (925) 313-2235 or cricc@pw.cccounty.us; Maurice Shiu can be reached at (925) 313-2000 or mshiu@pw.cccounty.us.