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Public Sector Continuous Improvement…Now or Later?

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

By Marvin N. Pichla
September 12, 2021

Change: “To alter, adjust, transform, modify, convert, vary, fluctuate, amend, rearrange reorganize, reform or reconstruct.” Singularly or all together these terms serve as rationale for continuous improvement in every workplace everywhere. So given all of the ongoing change incidents and factors that have impacted multiple aspects of every employment position, doesn’t it seem timely for those in the field of public administration to take on the challenge of infusing continuous improvement into the public sector?

I believe that most people still think of work in the private sector when they hear the words, “Continuous Improvement.” Growing up in Michigan and surrounded by multiple auto-related manufacturers, this term is discussed, analyzed, debated and promoted time and time again. However and unfortunately the quality impacts of progressive continuous improvement processes have not completely found their way into all levels of public administration. Stop and think about that statement and apply it to governmental entities that surround where you live. If you visited and asked the local city, township or county board of commissioners for their current continuous improvement plan…could they produce one?

Well, to be fair, there is a little doubt that continuous improvement activities are silently present in most public sector organizations. The activities may be tied to specific grant functions or be part of a public service program that contains self-evaluation components. However, when you take into account the entire field of public administration, shouldn’t there be a common drive that every organization adopt at least a standard format of continuous improvement? In other words, as stated by Jesse Nieminen in The Ultimate Guide to Continuous Improvement, we should be able to confidentially proclaim that all public sector employees will embrace the principle that, “Continuous improvement is our conscious, deliberate, decision to continuously invest and focus on getting better. It can’t be a one-off project with a start and an end, but an ongoing process that aims toward excellence in our chosen area of focus.”

If we assume acceptance of this special “proclamation”, lets continue our consideration of employing a universal public administration continuous improvement strategy by initially reviewing this list of potential benefits:

            –           Cost savings.

            –           Less waste (time/money/resources).

            –           Increased operational efficiency.

            –           Increased customer satisfaction.

            –           Decreased capital requirements/inventory levels.

            –           Improved sharing of knowledge/organizational learning.

            –           Shorter feedback loop and time value creation.

            –           Improved culture in employee engagement.

As you can see, EVERY organization can benefit from a pursuit of continuous improvement practices. Whether one looks at a profit and loss statement or the innovative ideas that may come more naturally from all workers, engaging in cross-public agency continuous improvement practices could be a taxpayer’s finest return-on-investment.

Next, with regard to implementation, it is important to remember that it is not only permissible to customize an organization’s continuous improvement plan—but almost necessary. No two public services are exactly the same, engage with the same clientele or retain the same line-up of professional staff. As a result, one public administrative entity may choose to exclusively focus on improved sharing of knowledge/organizational learning plus increased product/service quality as its principle continuous improvement benefit objectives. Another may need to select a continuous improvement strategy that will increase operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. Customizing or targeting an agency’s continuous improvement plan will enable each employee to more directly address and contribute to a pursuit of excellence process.

Another customizing option that fits well within a continuous improvement strategy is to allow different divisions or subsets of a public sector entity to focus on separate benefit areas. For example agency leadership may believe their efforts would best be applied to encouraging less waste across the organization. Time, resources and money concerns all fall within this very appropriate category and are forever in need of development attention. Also, those at top agency levels would be wise to consider decreased capital requirements/inventory levels. During these “just-in-time” operational periods, having leadership make this a priority area is key to great public administration continuous improvement.

With the influx of hundreds, thousands, millions and now even trillions of governmental dollars into the multifaceted United States public administration service structure, it is our systems responsibility to accept the continuous improvement mandate…NOW! Ensuring that every tax dollar is utilized effectively and efficiently must be more than a promise. Also, with the increased technological capacities of so many news and “watch-dog” groups able to research and assess public sector service and spending in minutes (if not seconds), it is necessary for public servants to always seek to be better every day…EVERY DAY.

Adopting a culture of public sector continuous improvement is a logical NOW action. Many public administration officials may have already taken steps in this direction. However, continuous improvement needs to be employed at all levels of public administration to be comprehensively effective. It would be tough to produce a counter argument and there could be no better accountability time than NOW!


Author: Marvin N. Pichla, Ph.D., is the owner and creative adviser of Inspiring Innovations, Inc. Sharing his unique entrepreneurship and innovation in public service experience, Marv consults with public and private business, education and community organizations to develop new and different problem-solving methods through real-life, example-based learning

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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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