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Going for Greatness in City Government

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

By Christine Schaefer
January 17, 2017


In November, residents of the City of Fort Collins in northern Colorado considered a ballot question on a sales and use tax they’d previously approved. Since 2011, revenue collected from the “Keep Fort Collins Great” tax of 0.85 percent had helped fund municipal services such as streets and parks maintenance and police and fire protection for a growing population of over 160,000.

In October, the Coloradoan reported, “The taxes are back before voters because of a little-known provision of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, amendment to the state constitution.” Reporter Kevin Duggan further explained, “The law requires a taxing entity to refund revenue collected during the first year of a new tax that exceeds the amount estimated in the election notice. A second vote is needed for an entity to retain extra revenue.”

As the vote approached, Fort Collins leaders—including the city manager, Darin Atteberry, who serves via appointment by a seven-member, elected city council and mayor—faced the potential challenge of determining and distributing refunds to all residents taxed.

Yet a group of citizens organized to promote passage of the ballot measure, asking fellow residents to allow their city to keep and continue to use the funds for municipal services. On November 7, nearly three-quarters of voters reaffirmed their support for the tax and the City’s use of the revenue.

It was the fifth time a tax initiative had been approved by Fort Collins voters over the past decade—surely an indicator of public trust in the City’s government. Such results may prompt other public-sector leaders to ask, “What is Fort Collins doing to get that kind of support from citizens?”

Journey to Excellence

In a recent phone interview, Atteberry and other city leaders shared their vision of making their city great and other thoughts on their quest for excellence as a government organization. As described in the article last month, Atteberry and his team adopted a framework for organizational excellence developed by the federal Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (within the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology).

The Baldrige Excellence Framework is based on a systems perspective for leading and managing an organization. The framework’s 11 core concepts include customer-focused excellence, ethics and transparency, management by fact, managing for innovation, and valuing people. As Fort Collins leaders shared last month, this framework helps them track their government’s progress in seven key areas of performance, including leadership.

Beyond the passage of the tax ballot in November, an event a week later marked a celebratory milestone in Fort Collins’ journey to greatness as a government organization: the announcement from the U.S. secretary of commerce that Fort Collins had earned recognition for its leadership practices through its participation in the 2016 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award process.

The City’s Leadership Processes

After the rigorous Baldrige assessment process, the City received a feedback report on its performance. With Fort Collins’ permission, the article last month included excerpts from the report on overall findings related to the City’s leadership practices.

Following is a synthesis of more information from the Baldrige assessment findings, summarizing key strengths of Fort Collins’ leadership processes, combined with exemplary results:

  • To meet its mission of providing “exceptional service for an exceptional community” and its vision of providing “world-class municipal services through operational excellence and a culture of innovation,” the City has developed an integrated leadership system around 16 key processes. This system focuses the organization on achieving goals and community expectations in seven outcome areas: Community and Neighborhood Livability, Culture and Recreation, Economic Health, Environmental Health, High-Performing Government, Safe Community and Transportation. Fort Collins leaders review the City’s performance in these areas monthly to support continuous improvement. Showcasing the City’s progress in the seven key areas, in multiple national rankings for related measures since 2013 the City has performed in the top 10th percentile.

City of Fort Collins

  • Fort Collins leaders provide timely and easy public access to the City’s information and data. Online tools promoting transparency and accountability include the Community Dashboard and scorecard on the City’s performance, as well as the Open Book website tool which details government expenditures. Residents, businesses and other community members can also exchange information with Fort Collins senior leaders via council meetings, work sessions, committee meetings, board meetings and the Access Fort Collins website. The City’s Budgeting for Outcomes and other financial processes and policies also make evident its values of stewardship and integrity. Residential survey ratings reflect strong trust—ranking the City in the top 10 percent nationally as a “best place to live” and for “overall quality of life” for six consecutive years.
  • Leaders have incorporated a focus on societal well-being and community support into the City’s strategy and daily operations. For example, through the Sustainability Action Plan process, the City systematically evaluates methods to optimize natural, financial and human resources. Among indicators of its commitment to the community, the City has increased the number of affordable housing units in recent years, maintains unemployment well below the national rate, and demonstrates beneficial performance trends for quality-of-life measures such as recreation participation and ease of traveling by bicycle.

Author: Christine Schaefer is a staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. She currently leads the team that manages publications, communications, the Baldrige Award process and other assessments, 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 studies focused on public policy issues. 

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