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From “Trust Us” to Transparent Local Government

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

By Christine Schaefer
April 16, 2018

On the evening of April 8, 2018, City of Fort Collins (CO) City Manager Darin Atteberry stood at a podium in a hotel ballroom. Addressing an audience of distinguished leaders of high-performing U.S. businesses, nonprofits and health care and education organizations, he shared a story about hanging a picture with his wife. In assessing his completed job, she had quipped, “That’s good enough for government work,” he said.

After noting his spouse’s support for his public-sector work despite her joke, Atteberry said that an online search of the phrase revealed government work was historically considered the highest standard. Reestablishing such high regard appears to be an aim of the leadership of the City of Fort Collins: “We believe that government can be great,” stated Atteberry to the ballroom audience. “We believe that local government can be great. And we believe that the Baldrige framework is ideally suited to help local government go from here to here [upward].”

Atteberry was at the April ceremony to officially accept the 2017 Baldrige Award on behalf of Fort Collins — a crowning achievement for his 22-year-long career in the city manager’s office and for a city that has already secured a long list of national distinctions on quality-of-life measures for its approximately 170,000 residents. For example, in 2014, it was named “America’s Most Satisfied City” by Time magazine based on Gallup survey results.

The Baldrige Award is the nation’s highest and only presidential honor for U.S. organizations (across multiple sectors) that achieve excellence. Established more than 30 years ago, the award was named to memorialize the deceased U.S. Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige after he died in a rodeo accident during his cabinet-office tenure.

Today, organizations that submit applications for the annual award process undergo a rigorous, three-phase evaluation against comprehensive criteria for performance excellence. Part of the Baldrige Excellence Framework, those award criteria were adapted for government organizations’ use more than a decade ago; since nonprofits organizations became eligible to apply for the related Baldrige Award in 2007, three cities have earned it, including Coral Springs, FL, and Irving, TX. City of Fort Collins is the third.

Moving beyond a “Trust Us” Kind of Government

The morning after the recent Baldrige Award ceremony, Atteberry delivered a presentation on his city’s leadership practices to many of the same audience members. The event was part of an annual conference where Baldrige Award recipient organizations present their best practices in seven key areas to advance the learning of other organizations’ leaders.

In presenting highlights of the city’s “journey” to excellence, Atteberry covered five themes:

  • Government can be great;
  • Moving from “trust us” to data-driven;
  • Focus on culture + strategy = results;
  • Engaging the culture; and,
  • Framing a leadership philosophy through the leadership system model.

According to Atteberry, the belief that “local government can be great” helped his city leadership make a profound change in governance practices. The shift could be described as moving from taking for granted stakeholders’ trust to measuring and openly sharing performance data and thus earning stakeholders’ trust through transparency. For this to occur, Atteberry credited the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence with helping Fort Collins leaders “be more intentional in our alignment of planning [for] budgeting and putting systems in place.”

He shared that his leadership team leads with the belief that strategy and culture are both important to getting desired results. To deliver what the community expects, Fort Collins has fostered a culture of excellence within the government workforce. At the same time, “part of our strategy is to be very crystal clear on how we plan and budget,” he said. “We use a Budgeting for Outcomes (BFO) process, which requires budget ‘offers’ to be tied to [the city’s] strategic objectives.”

Atteberry further explained that his government has structured all its strategic planning (short- and long-term), budgeting, measurement and reviews and work system planning around seven key outcome areas: Neighborhood Livability and Social Health; Culture and Recreation; Economic Health; Environmental Health; Safe Community; Transportation; and High-Performing Government. These strategic outcome areas were co-created with citizens, business representatives and city staff members during the implementation of the first BFO cycle in 2005. And the concept allows a focus on civic issues that are important to the community, he said, as well as allowing increased collaboration among workers across the city’s service areas.

The city’s leadership system incorporates its strategy, culture and results. In describing it, Atteberry pointed out that (1) it is a continuous process; (2) it surrounds the city’s mission, vision, and values. (“Our first model was top down, more hierarchical; this one is a continuous flow,” he said.); (3) it incorporates key processes — those processes that are systematic and touch each service area. … and (4) it is easy to explain to citizens, board members and the city’s staff.

Atteberry ended his leadership presentation with data from his city’s latest citizen survey. The 2017 results indicate highly favorable perceptions of the city government. As Atteberry reported, 90 percent of residents who responded “say the overall quality of city services is good or very good.”

Author: Christine Schaefer, a staff member of the federal Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, 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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