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Agency Accreditation: Worth the Effort?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
July 25 , 2022

Agency accreditation has existed for many years, with professional organizations creating standards of excellence tailored to their own realms. In pursuing accreditation, public agencies seek both to test themselves against established benchmarks of excellence and demonstrate the quality of their performance through the recognition of their peers. Across all public sector disciplines, many agencies have embraced the challenge, sometimes hesitantly, as it is a daunting task, considering accreditation a worthy goal. The trend towards accreditation will likely increase. To make informed decisions concerning the pursuit of accreditation, we should consider the potential costs and benefits.

Costs of Accreditation

Many will leap into the pursuit of accreditation with stars in their eyes, focusing only on the benefits they believe accreditation will bring both to them and their agency. If we did not foresee any benefits, we would not pursue a goal. However, once in the accreditation process, there are costs which must be borne. There are the financial costs of applying for accreditation, often including fees for both the accreditation application and membership in the accrediting organization. There are the costs associated with the collecting, analyzing, documenting and reporting of information to serve as exhibits for the accreditation criteria. It is often necessary to assign one or more staff to accreditation full-time, or nearly so, for many months. These efforts involve substantial staffing and administrative costs, which might be more daunting for smaller, less resourced agencies.

There are additional, intangible costs to be considered. There are the frequently undiscussed opportunity costs, with other goals set aside as limited resources are committed to accreditation. There are reputational costs for agency leaders, the agencies and the communities they serve if the accreditation process does not go smoothly or leads to failure. In truth, this is more likely to be caused by inadequate organizational planning, documentation, resources or analysis than substantially flawed performance. However, if the process moves slowly, haltingly or ends with accreditation denied, there is the potential for reputational damage to all stakeholders. Reputational damage might contribute to limited professional opportunities for agency members, reduced public support for the agency and a negative impact on economic development for the community.

Benefits of Accreditation

Any agency decision should include a cost-benefit analysis. Many agencies consider costs in a secondary, limited manner. We have considered both the tangible and intangible costs to ensure we make an informed decision. What are the benefits? The tangible benefits of accreditation—the ones which often spring to mind first—take the form of plaques, patches, stickers and web site declarations of accredited status. Some leaders seem almost to desire cult-like veneration of these symbols in their agencies. To many, these are greatly valued, but one would be hard pressed to explain what value these bring to the community.

The community benefits not from the accreditation, but from the process of accreditation. To achieve accreditation, agencies are forced to clarify their mission, goals and objectives. They are forced to create clear, relevant metrics of success. They are forced to document and communicate their efforts internally and externally, supporting better coordination inside and greater transparency outside. This often forces them to implement new processes, while concurrently trimming waste. They are forced to make evidence-based decisions, prioritize activities and ensure all efforts are directed towards meeting or exceeding the needs and expectations of their community. The benefits to the community from these efforts are incalculable. They do not come from a plaque, sticker or web site boast. They come from a new way of thinking—a new way of acting—a culture focused on increased professionalism. These support higher quality services, contributing to greater support for the agency and an enhanced reputation for the community.

Past research has determined organizational leaders were challenged to place a precise value on the accreditation process. They agreed the process created new structures and cultures, which contributed to more effective and efficient performance. With this said, while they highly recommended the initial accreditation process, they were not as supportive of reaccreditation. One side argued the accreditation process contributed to a finely tuned machine, not needing to be retuned frequently. Alternatively, some argued the recertification process provided an objective, external audit of internal processes and practices, ensuring systems still performed at high levels. While the debate concerning recertification might be on-going, there is consensus concerning the value the intangible benefits of accreditation bring to all stakeholders.

One final caveat—“do not put all your eggs in one basket.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked something to the effect “Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable.” He used to rotate staff through planning assignments, in part, as a means of developing their global thinking. Be wary of limiting engagement in accreditation to one individual or a small group within the agency. To reap the benefits noted, it is imperative you develop as many people as possible, creating widespread, sustainable, self-replicating change in your agency.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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