Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
All States Quality Forum
September 9, 1997
Welcome to Washington.
I hope you will enjoy the Puget Sound area, and that you'll find time to ride a ferry, drink some good coffee, eat some great ethnic foods and see some of our distinctive neighborhoods.
I also hope you will share all your best ideas with us before you go home.
The basic idea of improving the quality of government services often gets overwhelmed by the technical jargon we use to describe our methods and processes.
So I want to begin this morning by talking about why this work is so important.
During the course of my adult life - as a deputy prosecutor, a legislator, as King County Executive, and now as Governor - I've watched the public's regard for government decline.
That decline has brought us to a dangerous point - a point at which too many people no longer trust government to spend their tax dollars wisely, or to govern for the common good.
This deficit of faith comes at a moment in our history when devolution of federal authority to the states puts people like us in positions of greater responsibility - and positions of greater vulnerability to the consequences of public mistrust.
When people believe that politics is a dirty business, the terrible corollary is that anyone who works for government is tainted by the fact that their bosses are politicians.
And the result is that public employees have to swim against a demoralizing tide of public disdain.
And while we as public employees feel that disdain most immediately and directly, the larger danger is that when citizens distrust government, their faith in the very idea of democracy is eroded as well.
That is an immense danger, and an enormous challenge.
We can all theorize about the causes of this distrust of government.
But the more important challenge is to rebuild people's trust, and their faith in the democratic process.
Here in Washington, that's our basic motivation for quality improvement.
We started by acknowledging that the public's disdain for public service is - at least in part - the result of our own shortcomings.
I doubt that ours is the only state where too many public managers have embraced the comfort and security of bureaucracy and regulation.
We're also probably not alone in having a history of focusing on procedures rather than results.
But like all of you, we're now working overtime to change those bad habits.
For me, the light dawned during my first days on the job as King County Executive.
One of the first things that came to my desk was a form to correct a mistake on a clerk's personnel records. It involved no change in pay.
The form required eight signatures, and the last one was supposed to be mine.
I refused to sign it, and sent it back with a request that this process be simplified.
But everyone fought us!
No one wanted to be the last signature, because no one wanted to be responsible if there was a mistake.
So I learned that if you want to achieve quality improvements, you also have to overcome that entrenched culture of fear.
People have to know that if they do their best and use good judgment, they will not be hung out to dry if something goes wrong.
Eventually, we succeeded in simplifying those personnel forms and pushing responsibility down to the level where it belonged - but only after I was able to convince people that we would not manage by picking scapegoats.
Achieving that cultural change in state government is a bigger challenge.
But I am more convinced than ever that it can be done.
My first executive order as governor called on every state agency to reduce and streamline regulations.
My second focused on Quality Improvement.
The two are related.
From a citizen's point of view, making government simpler is often synonymous with making it better.
Our problem - both with regulatory reform and with quality improvement - was that while individual agencies had undertaken various initiatives, their efforts were scattered, uneven, and unrelated.
There was a lot to be learned from those efforts, but we had to make it clear that quality improvement would no longer be optional.
That's why I began by making it clear to every agency director in my cabinet that our new quality initiative was an executive order, not an executive suggestion.
And that's also why we designed a very comprehensive, statewide system of quality improvement.
I assigned Fred Stephens, my deputy chief of staff, to lead this effort.
Each agency was required (1) to identify areas that could be improved, (2) to define the results they were aiming for, and (3) to submit quality improvement plans to my office.
These initial plans are to be followed with quarterly reports that chart our progress, and the lessons we're learning from our mistakes.
Every cabinet member knows that they will be personally accountable for meeting or exceeding the goals they set.
We have also developed a very clearly-defined organizational infrastructure to support and promote these changes.
We designed this comprehensive system with the help of our employee unions, because we believe our front-line workers are our most important source of good ideas and experience.
Career state employees have been through every management fad and fashion.
They also read Dilbert.
So they are important to us as the truth squad that can call time out when they see the principles of quality improvement being distorted, abused, or misused.
Their involvement is important for another reason, too.
We want our quality initiative to be something that helps rebuild state employees' pride.
When someone asks a state employee where they work, we want them to be as proud to answer that questions as someone who works at Microsoft Nordstrom, Boeing or Starbucks.
We want them - and the citizens of this state - to think of public service as a respected expression of our patriotism, and our pride in our beautiful state.
Our approach has already begun to reap new benefits.
To cite just one example, our Department of Retirement Systems has always sent retirees a monthly remittance statement, even though their benefits are electronically deposited directly into their bank accounts every month.
When our new administrator questioned the need for these monthly statements, a longtime employee said we could never stop sending them. The retirees would revolt.
So someone else said, "Why don't we simply ask the retirees if they want this monthly notification?"
It turned out that most of them didn't.
And the result was a monthly savings of $10,000 in postage and processing costs.
Those are the kinds of sensible savings our citizens appreciate. In fact, we got scores of letters thanking us for reducing waste.
And that is the kind of common sense that will - if multiplied over many agencies and many months - can make a big difference in peoples' faith in their government.
That is the goal that we hold clearly in our sights.
Democracy will always be the toughest boss there is.
It is demanding, complicated, absolutely devoid of privacy, and subject to constant change.
But if public service were easy, it would be boring.
And if quality improvement were easy, it would have been done long ago.
What makes both public service and quality improvement meaningful and satisfying is that they serve a great cause: the cause of democratic self-government.
At the end of the day, we know that the work we do makes a positive difference in the lives of the people we serve.
And we know that our work - however obscure or unsung - is the work that keeps the wheels of democracy in motion, and the work that will ensure that our children will live in a country that is open and free.
So I hope that all of you will continue to be effective leaders and champions for improving government services for the citizens of your states.
It would be great if, one day, there were an Oscar or a Nobel Prize that recognizes and rewards your efforts.
In the meantime - and that might be pretty long - I want each of you to know that what you're doing is absolutely critical.
So I hope you have a very productive conference, and that each of you ends the day with an arsenal of new ideas that can help move the quality agenda forward.
Thank you very much, and good luck.