Accreditation: The Overland Park Experience

Mike Miller
Management Analyst
City of Overland Park, Kansas

December 15, 1997 was a historic day for APWA's accreditation program. On that day the City of Greeley, CO and the Village of Schaumburg, IL became the first two accredited agencies in North America. In the past ten years, an additional 41 agencies, making a current total of 43, have joined the ranks, with 41 in the United States and two in Canadian provinces.

Throughout 2007, accredited agencies, their staff members, evaluators, and elected officials will be sharing their experiences with the program. The eighth article in the series is presented below. For more information about the program, contact Ann Daniels at adaniels@apwa.net or (816) 595-5223, or visit the website at www.apwa.net/About/Accreditation/.

Since most of us are in the transportation business I'll describe accreditation as a journey. Many different roads exist to get there, but each public works entity must determine the best route to take, and when to take it. In our case, the journey began in 2001 with the self-assessment process, and then in late 2004, we formally applied for accreditation. For accreditation to be successful the timing has to be right and the organization needs to be ready for it. We completed our work in 2006 and became the 36th accredited agency. The heavy lifting may be over but the journey does not end there.

Overland Park, Kansas is a fast-growing community of 170,000 people. It was incorporated 47 years ago and is now the second-largest city in Kansas and the second-largest city in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Several of our sister cities in the area like Lenexa and Olathe, Kansas, and Lee's Summit, Missouri, were either newly-accredited or were pursing accreditation. Accreditation managers from each entity met regularly for a year to discuss challenges and provide helpful advice. John Cromwell, Program Development Manager for the Lenexa Public Works Department, assisted us with a peer review ahead of our site formal evaluation.

During self-assessment, we discovered a very common occurrence—a lot of what we did was not written down, or if it was, it was often not easily accessible or sometimes even known by other employees. As we often heard from folks who had been through the accreditation process, "You are likely doing what the practice statements ask for, you just need to write it down and provide examples."

As I mentioned, an organization needs to be ready to embark on accreditation. Maybe that means starting with self-assessment and considering accreditation later. Whatever the approach, accreditation works better with numerous champions who spread ownership and excitement about the benefits of this process throughout the organization. During self-assessment, creating champions and an understanding of the process was a challenge for us, in part because a high level of technical and professional competence already existed; so, the "gain" from a review process was more difficult for us to translate into ownership. As we made the decision in 2004 to undertake formal accreditation, we gained wider acceptance by making the goal the creation of a department management manual and this would in turn provide us with the necessary documentation material for accreditation. We also made accreditation a visible and high-priority effort which involved the direct participation by every supervisor and a large number of our employees.

We moved slowly but steadily through the self-assessment phase, utilizing the assistance of several management interns to gather organizational information and documentation. Once we made the decision to pursue formal accreditation one of our first issues was to determine the format for cataloging and making the "fruits" of this effort available as a resource to others. Like many others before us, we got hung up on what something (a policy or SOP) was supposed to look like. Getting started writing practice statements is difficult, but after a practice or two, the effort gets easier.

We built a website library for our practice statements and support materials which evolved into an online operations manual of our policies, procedures and resources. The basic format of the accreditation manual was used for the website structure. Drop-down menus were created for easy navigation and a search engine was incorporated to help locate other related materials on city network drives.

July 2006: The site evaluation team with Overland Park employees and the Chair of the City's Public Works Committee

Each chapter in the accreditation manual was assigned an author who was responsible for writing or coordinating the information for the practices within that chapter. The website was designed so that multiple authors could enter information and attach documents or create hyperlinks from other websites. Each practice statement underwent an internal peer review to check for completeness, understandability and testing of hyperlinks. A further review was done by the Accreditation Manager and Public Works Director.

Preparing for the evaluation site visit is an anxiety-producing event. We utilized a peer review process which helped as we continued to review and edit our practice statements. We set up a computer in each evaluation room so that most of our materials could be easily viewed during discussion of practice statements. We mapped out our introductory tour for the evaluators and drove the route to check the time and points of interest. We hosted a reception for the evaluators, our governing body, executive staff and employees who were involved in presenting any of the practices. The evaluators assigned for our site visit were great: John Ostrowski, Steve Pageau, Mariana Llanso and Bill Grabowecky were helpful and supportive, and they eagerly engaged our presenters and staff to learn about our department and operations. The site visit involved answering a lot of questions and in some cases digging for more information to help show how our department complied with practice statements. At the end of each day we were exhausted but energized in telling our story. Overall, the site evaluation proved to be a very collaborative process between our staff and the evaluators.

Now a year later, we are looking at our operations manual from top to bottom, reviewing how we update any procedures, resources and policies—and how we institutionalize this information into our organization. Accreditation is very much about continuous improvement. That journey never ends once you decide to take the first step.

Mike Miller, City of Overland Park Accreditation Manager, can be reached at (913) 895-6002 or michael.miller@opkansas.org.