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What Happens When City Leaders Believe Government Can Be Great?

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

By Christine Schaefer
December 23, 2016

colorado-690235_640“America’s Most Satisfied City.” That’s what Time magazine called Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2014. According to Gallup survey data, nearly 95 percent of the city’s residents said they were satisfied with Fort Collins that year, compared to an average of 85 percent in other American cities. Moreover, Time reported, “Fort Collins has been a consistent high performer in the index since Gallup started asking the question in 2008.”

This year, Fort Collins earned best-practice recognition for leadership through the highest national (and only presidential) award for U.S. organizations that demonstrate excellence: the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The rigorous national award process involved three phases of examination of the city government, including a site visit, in seven categories of performance.

Strengths in Leadership

Like every applicant for the Baldrige Award, Fort Collins received a confidential “feedback report.” The report details its top strengths and opportunities for improvement, as determined by a team of trained volunteers (called Baldrige examiners) based on their cross-sector expertise and understanding of the Criteria for Performance Excellence (part of the Baldrige Excellence Framework).

Because Fort Collins leaders made available the city’s feedback report for sharing in this article, the following are key findings of its leadership practices:

  • Senior leaders use an integrated leadership system designed to meet community requirements and needs and create a focus on organizational success. This system is built around 16 key processes that advance seven outcome areas, each with established goals and measures of expectations to achieve. Senior leaders and applicable councils review performance monthly to create an environment of improvement.
  • Key to the leadership system is the seven-step, issues-based strategic planning process that occurs on a two-year cycle and includes short- and long-term planning horizons to ensure that strategic objectives align with the city’s 25-year plan.
  • City of Fort Collins delivers an efficient, transparent, effective and collaborative government that demonstrates ethics and transparency.
  • City of Fort Collins’ approaches to responsible governance also include approaches to ensure transparency and accountability. Approaches such as a community dashboard and a community scorecard apprise the community of the government’s performance.
  • Through two-way communication in council meetings, work sessions, committee meetings, board meetings, and the Access Fort Collins website, citizens hold the executive leadership team accountable for its actions.
  • The city further promotes public trust by demonstrating fiscal accountability and transparency using the Open Book tool on its website that provides detailed information on city government expenditures. City leaders discuss and finalize the budget in public meetings, and city finances are reviewed annually by outside auditors, further promoting the city’s values of integrity and stewardship.

“Local Government Can Be Great”

Interviewed by phone recently, Fort Collins City Manager Darin Atteberry shared a story about a belief that has inspired him as he’s been steering the city on its “journey” to excellence in recent years.

He was reading a column in Fast Company magazine about what people had learned from their professional mentors and noted that a mentor had asked, “What’s the one thing you believe that no one else believes?” Atteberry asked himself the question, then realized, “The first thing that came to my mind—within a split second—was local government can be great.”

A few days later, Atteberry was meeting with more than 100 human resources executives from a global company (visiting Fort Collins to learn about organizational culture). “I decided to ask them how many believed that local government can be great,” Atteberry said. “Not one of them raised a hand.”

Atteberry seems determined to change such perceptions of government through his city’s pursuit of excellence. To that end, he said he’s had many conversations with peers about the benefits of the undertaking. “I’ve asked, ‘What’s the cost of not doing strategic planning and so forth,’” he said (referencing areas in which organizations must demonstrate systematic processes to meet the requirements of the Baldrige Criteria).

Why Baldrige

In describing the benefits of using the Baldrige framework, Fort Collins Assistant City Manager Kelly DiMartino said the city’s journey “started with this commitment to transparency.” (Ethics and transparency is among 11 core values and concepts of the Baldrige framework.)

DiMartino also stressed, “I think the framework has really helped us focus. Having the different categories has helped us be more clear around what we’re doing with leadership, customers, workforce engagement … we’re able to be very deliberate.”

Speaking of what the city has gained through the Baldrige assessment process, Fort Collins Deputy City Manager and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Mihelich said, “Part of our vision statement is that we want to be a ‘world-class’ municipal organization, providing world-class services. The term world-class can be somewhat problematic for some people: ‘What exactly does that mean, and how do we measure it to know that we’re successful?’”

“We think that using the Baldrige framework is an excellent way to measure that,” Mihelich added. “An outside organization … says we’re performing at a best-in-class level in a way that other organizations are not.”

“At a very high level, it’s about getting better,” said Atteberry. “It starts with the fundamental belief that improvement is a good thing.


Author: Christine Schaefer has been a staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program since 2005. A writer-editor, she has served as a team leader for the past three years, supporting the management of publications, communications, award process and other assessment activities, and training. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in political and social thought and a master’s degree from Georgetown University, where her coursework and thesis focused on social and public policy issues. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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