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While total quality management (TQM) has gained widespread popularity in government, little is known about its effectiveness. Surveys indicate that quality improvement programs and related customer service improvement efforts have been implemented by many state and local jurisdictions (National Governors' Association, 1992; Kravchuk and Leighton, 1993; Berman and West, 1995) as well as numerous federal agencies (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1992), but to date there is scant evidence about its impact on service delivery or overall organization performance. Given the substantial investment in time and other resources being committed to TQM processes on the one hand, and the considerable skepticism regarding the probability of success for TQM in the public sector on the other, it is essential to begin assessing the impact of governmental agencies' quality improvement efforts on their overall performance in terms of service quality, productivity, and effectiveness.
The early literature on TQM in the public sector -- which has tended to be expository (Carr and Littman, 1990; Sensenbrenner, 1991), skeptical (Milakovich, 1990; Swiss, 1992), or instructional in nature (Cohen and Brand, 1993) -- has given way to accounts of implementing TQM in various agencies and the lessons learned from these experiences (Cox, 1995; Maher, 1995; McNabb and Sepic, 1995; Rago, 1996). However, these reports do not address the issue of TQM's effectiveness, and attempts to do so have been inconclusive. For example, a review of a well-established TQM program in the Florida Department of Transportation found that employees had favorable perceptions of its impact on the department's operating efficiency, but no financial or operating data were available to confirm this impression (Bowman and French, 1992). A study of long-standing TQM efforts at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, which did track hard data on inputs and outputs across pre- and post-TQM periods, found no significant difference in productivity before and after TQM implementation, although the author suggests that TQM might have helped the IRS retain the benefits of earlier productivity increases (Mani, 1995).
There are several reasons why evaluations of TQM effectiveness have not been forthcoming to date. First, many agencies' programs are their infancy and are concentrating on the early stages of quality improvement. Total quality management philosophy stresses the need for long-term commitment, emphasizing cultural change, skill development, and behavioral modification that would then lead to improved performance. Therefore, tangible improvement in service delivery may only be expected to come further along in the process. Moreover, TQM processes are intended to produce incremental, continuous improvement that will accumulate into meaningful change over the long run, as opposed to process reengineering, which is intended to produce dramatic improvement in the immediate future (Davenport, 1994). While agencies often document specific operational improvements and cost savings produced by quality process teams along the way, they often do not have measurement systems in place to track accumulated impacts of TQM programs over the long run.
In addition, public organizations are not always clear regarding their objectives in implementing TQM programs. In addition, these objectives may shift over time from employee involvement and development, innovation, teamwork, and healthier organizational climates, to improved service quality and customer satisfaction, increased productivity, and more bottom-line-oriented cost-effectiveness. Finally, the fact that such large-scale organizational interventions can rarely be introduced as controlled experiments, and in any case tend to evolve over time beyond original intentions, creates severe methodological challenges for evaluating their impact. Often constrained by a lack of record keeping regarding TQM programmatic activity from the outset, and inadequate or inconsistent outcome measures over time, attempts to evaluate the impact of TQM efforts on organization performance are often limited to little more than testimonials or anecdotal evidence.
Given continuing uncertainty about the true worth of TQM, a quality backlash is growing in the private sector that may well spread to increased concerns regarding public sector applications as well. The record is further muddied by the experience of agencies that proceed with very superficial versions of TQM -- sometimes referred to as total quality lip service -- or abort well-intentioned efforts in the early stages when tangible results in terms of quality and productivity do not materialize quickly. Thus, as noted by one of the principal authorities on public sector process improvement and innovation, Albert Hyde (1995), the impact of quality management on productivity growth in government remains a critical issue. Claiming that despite the skepticism, "few really doubt the primacy of quality as a major premise for improving performance," Hyde goes on to say:
In summary, there is every reason to believe that quality
management ... can be and will be a viable approach for
improving productivity and performance in the public
sector. Quality approaches centered around process
management, customer feedback, employee empowerment,
and supplier involvement are very compatible
with preferred public sector management styles. As for
productivity, the dichotomy that many see between
quality and productivity should lessen as quality
management adapts to the public sector and its service side,
while the public sector becomes more familiar with
quality management precepts and strategies (Hyde,
Nevertheless, Hyde still sees the impact of TQM as an open question, and in earlier work points out that the supposed principles underlying the approach are really no more than administrative proverbs until they are tested with rigorous evaluation designs and subjected to the measurement of results (1992). More recently, Wilson and Durant (1994) have pointed out that as the initial euphoria surrounding TQM wears off, it is critical to evaluate TQM programs systematically to determine whether they generate meaningful results. They advocate the use of theory-driven models to take implementation and contextual factors into account in interpreting results.
Purpose and Approach
This article responds to the need for systematic evaluations of total quality management in the public sector by examining the service delivery impact of quality improvement processes in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), focusing on its large highway maintenance program. Examining simple correlations, a preliminary analysis of this effort …