What It Takes to Improve City Government: A Leadership Perspective

By Christine Schaefer

As a city leader, Tommy Gonzalez started using the Baldrige Excellence Framework to achieve operational excellence within a municipal government in 2008. In his role as manager of the City of Irving, Texas, at that time, Gonzalez introduced the framework in order to improve the city’s performance in all areas. The ultimate goal, of course, was to improve the quality of life for residents.

Over the next four years, propelled by the systems perspective and other core attributes of the Baldrige framework, the City of Irving examined and changed its approaches to its work to build systematic processes and continuously improve them. Like those in other organizations that use the Baldrige framework in earnest, employees became more focused on customers and more capable of delivering their desired results. The performance the city soon demonstrated earned it national recognition with a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2012.

Since last year, Gonzalez has been applying the same concepts of the Baldrige framework to improve life for residents of another city in Texas—El Paso—where he is city manager today. He recently participated in an interview for the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. Following are excerpts.

Head shot of Tommy Gonzalez

El Paso (TX) City Manager Tommy Gonzalez

First, could you share some memorable process improvements and results from your use of the Baldrige framework during your tenure at the City of Irving?

Yes, by implementing a number of process improvements and efficiency measures, we saved over $70 million over the course of an eight-year period. And we were able to maximize our commercial building permitting process for our business customers and gained a business-friendly reputation.

We started with surveys of our business community through our chamber of commerce. We were surveying our businesses to find out how we could get better. What we got back was that we need to have the market improve, and our permitting process was taking 3.5 months on average. So a focal point became to take that [cycle time] down to improve the market.

This process was very engaging for the employees. We really empowered them by having them all come to the table. What we found may sound simple, but it happens all across America in government and other organizations where you have several cubicles across several departments and people at several layers reviewing the same document. Our employees were actually reviewing the permit application six or seven times. And the paperwork was often sitting on a desk waiting for someone else to review it.

So it was taking about 3.5 months to issue a permit. We got it down to about three weeks. And then we got it down to about four days.

That’s an example of how you can become more efficient by including employees who work in the process in the activity you’re working on improving. You really need the middle layer too to look at the process to get those results. And the process allows you to speak the same language.

We continually asked, “How can we improve our service to our customers?” And we were able to hone in on what was actually more important.

As another example, we were able to reduce street construction time from 18 to 9 months. Through resident surveys and point-of-service surveys, we determined a need to reduce the construction time. So we used the summer months to reduce disruptions since that was important to customers.

Getting the results that were important to our customers improved our customer satisfaction results. They knew we were serious about getting better. The results showed residents we were not just [using the Baldrige framework] to get the award but to make service better.

Also [in using Baldrige Criteria], we really wanted to personify the term servant leader—to show that we follow through on what we say. When we did a survey of our employees, the initial results weren’t good.

What we learned from that process was that we could identify things that were important to our employees and where we needed to get better. We also identified some things we needed to work on from departments that are more insulated from customers. So we conducted an internal service survey that we used to help those departments become more focused on internal customers, too.

Another thing we learned was that we needed a new way to deal with the fact that our health care costs were going up. We introduced a wellness program that gave employees up to $150 per month to improve their health based on their scores for an annual biometric exam or achieving physical fitness goals. As a result, we lost a total of 4,600 pounds [from nearly 1,700 full-time employees]. We had a participation rate of about 46% … We reduced the city’s total liability for health care from $52 million to $26 million. And that achievement helped us achieve a “Healthiest Employer” award in north Texas.

Since becoming city manager of El Paso, Texas, last year, how have you fostered performance improvement?

We’ve worked hard to engage employees in the performance excellence journey at a high level. We started by improving our strategic planning. We put together a strong strategic plan last year that aligns everything, including the budget.

We also improved employee training. Working on specific improvements at the department level, we set new benchmarks for department performance. And we have departments using cross-functional teams to break down silos. For example, we created a management review team for the animal services department and included staff from animal services, public health, and our zoo to provide different perspectives to improve results.

In your keynote presentation at the Baldrige Program’s Regional Conference in Denver this past September, you shared examples of El Paso’s focus on developing leaders, executing its strategic plan, focusing on customers, measuring performance (e.g., with the city’s “report card”), engaging employees, and improving processes and results. Clearly, you’re focusing on all seven categories of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. What are some examples of results you’ve already achieved?

We’ve achieved $16 million in cost-savings in 14 months and revamped the entire city’s budgeting process to reduce cycle time from 4.5 months to three weeks.

So often city councils get into the weeds and don’t get their objectives accomplished. … [But] you want to become a role model in every category.

As a leader who has used the Baldrige framework and its core concepts to help more than one city improve its performance to better serve residents, what do you consider the greatest challenges of adopting the Baldrige framework in a nonprofit organization?

The greatest challenge: Overcoming your organization’s fear of change, of adjustment, and of consequences (if not performing at the [desired] level).

So it’s critical to demonstrate how the Baldrige framework can help employees do their job more effectively and that they see that they can be rewarded for their improved customer service. You have to show those kinds of examples [of how employees can be more effective]—and show the savings to the customer.

What do you consider the greatest benefit of using the Baldrige framework in city government?

A key benefit: The pride when we work together to make the city more valuable and effective … rewarding [employees’] commitment and achievement. When they see the results, it’s a huge benefit.

Another key benefit: when you are listening to your customer and finding a better way to respond to everyone, not just the squeaky wheel, there’s an attitude shift not only by employees, but by customers.

 Would you please share your insights and tips for city or other government leaders on becoming a high-performing organization?

  1. Don’t expect these things to come easy: They’re very complex and hard. But as I tell my sons, the “hard” is what makes you better.
  2. Be realistic about what you can accomplish: Starting small is better than trying to overhaul the entire organization so you have little wins [to build on].
  3. Reward employees. Stop to celebrate successes. Showcase every victory.
  4. Educate everyone [employees as well as our council and the public at large and the media] about what you’re doing. Communicate.
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3 Responses to What It Takes to Improve City Government: A Leadership Perspective

  1. Grace Tyler says:

    Great information for all organizations to learn from. Thank you.

  2. Greg MAZZOTTA says:

    Thanks for posting these great insights to
    designing / building / sustaining a
    high performing organization culture.

  3. Brad Durham says:

    As a business owner in the City of Irving, I had the opportunity to get to know Tommy and to witness firsthand the growth and improvement in the City. Tommy is a focused individual who helps others see greater things in the organization, and to believe that they can be achieved. While we certainly miss him, I know that he is a tremendous asset for El Paso!

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