Implementing quality management is easy for local authorities that know about PMS, says William Newbold

Quality management systems are becoming common in local government legal departments. Three of the driving forces are:

v council-wide initiatives to introduce Investors in People (IIP) or ISO 9000 – or both – in which the legal department is expected to take part;

v the desire of the legal department to achieve a quality standard because it sees increasing numbers of private practices adopting such a system;

v the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, (CCT), which is compelling for a local authority legal department seeking to achieve a quality management system.

Under the relevant regulations, local authorities may evaluate bids, either based on cost or a combination of cost and quality. Tender documents typically refer to evaluation

being inducted “on the basis of the economically most advantageous tender taking into account price and quality”.

Local authorities do have the option of evaluating tenders solely on price, but few would feel comfortable about purchasing legal services on price alone.

Quality in the context of tender evaluation is much wider than just a quality management system and, among other things, involves an assessment of the quality of staff according to their relevant experience and qualifications. Some form of quality assurance is an obvious element in any quality assessment. That said, under the regulations any potential provider that does not comply with something like the Law Society's practice management standards (PMS) cannot be excluded on these grounds alone, although their bid is likely to be considered less favourably.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the local authority legal departments already operating CCT have decided it is wise to have a quality management system.

Many of them with no tradition of systems such as ISO 9000 have turned to PMS and have been surprised at how easy they have been to adopt. And a few have attempted short cuts by buying manuals from other authorities, only to find their systems are not compatible.

One advantage for local government lawyers in developing their own form of PMS is that it gives them an opportunity to examine what they actually do, particularly on case plans, and how tasks are undertaken. It also gives gives them a feeling of pride and ownership in the resulting work.

Indeed, the adoption of PMS has often been surprisingly smooth and has acted as the springboard to the achievement of externally accredited and more widely-known standards such as IIP or ISO 9000.

For other professionals in

local government, who don't have the advantage of PMS, it is usually a case of either trying to adapt ISO 9000 to their practice or developing their own quality systems from scratch. This can be both time-consuming and open to challenge if the local authority professionals define quality too narrowly.

The focus on case plans is a particularly advantageous effect of PMS. One benefit of them that has frequently been commented on by lawyers in both the private and public sector practice is their value in client relations meetings, where there is the opportunity to discuss something specific rather than the generalities of legal services. Modern Service Level Agreements usually refer to or attach them. They are also aids to training. Case plans are extremely useful in inducting new staff, both new to local government and new to a particular specialisation, and can thus help to fulfill the induction requirements of Investors in People.

Local authority lawyers are aware of the proposals for the external accreditation of PMS, which is likely to be introduced from March 1997, and a number of legal departments are already taking steps to prepare themselves for it. The relevance of PMS, combined with the comparative ease with which it has been introduced in many authorities has led many local government lawyers who are familiar with PMS to feel optimistic about taking quality management systems one step further and achieving external accreditation.

Certainly, a straw poll of this partnership's current clients indicates that they don't see

external accreditation as a particularly difficult hurdle after implementing PMS.

William Newbold is a consultant at the David Andrews