If you are involved in accreditation – for a correctional facility, a law enforcement agency, or any other endeavor – you know one thing for sure: Accreditation is a LOT of work. In my pre-retirement career I was, among other things, the agency accreditation manager for an adult probation department under the American Correctional Association’s Performance Based Standards for Adult Probation and Parole Field Services. During and since that time I have also assisted numerous other correctional and law enforcement agencies achieve accreditation – previously through peer support, and more recently as a paid consultant. One of the prevailing questions I was asked (and asked myself a few times frankly), was “why should we go through all of this?”
Accreditation is rarely something that a public agency is required to do. It is time consuming, costly in many ways, and often mandates major changes in facilities and operational practices. It requires extensive record keeping and culminates in auditors coming into your facility or agency scrutinizing your practices and maybe finding something embarrassingly wrong. So why go through all of this? You go through it for several reasons, all stemming from an assumption that quality and accountability are high on your priority list.
Accreditation helps justify what you do and how you do it. Accreditation is based on standards, and those standards are reflective of best practices. Standards are written by accrediting bodies with members who are highly experienced in their field. Standards development is an exhaustive practice and are designed to represent how the work “should” be done. Everyone involved in writing standards (been there, done that) will tell you that no standard will represent the best practice for every agency, but standards represent a framework around which to write your written directives / policies, and gives you a compelling justification for why you practice the way that you do. Your policies are not just based on a whim or the way you think that an agency should operate. They’re based on years of experience and the well-thought opinions of leaders in the field.
Accreditation helps you see things that you missed. An audit is a learning experience. Sometimes a painful one. Auditors see things that you missed and read things in a way that you did not intend. Every accreditation manager wants that audit conclusion where you are told that everything is perfect. That never happens. I have never been involved in a “perfect audit”, either as an accreditation manager or as an auditor. The truth is that we as agency members are too close to our own operation to always see our deficiencies. Auditors are disinterested third parties who see what we have missed. While you hate it when that happens, you learn from it and grow from it, and become a better agency because of it.
Accreditation holds you accountable. If you are a public agency, you are a monopoly. I’m a private citizen now, but even when I wasn’t, dealing with a government agency provided me with few (if any) options. My city has one police department, one fire department, one street maintenance department, one court system – you get the picture. My taxes support these agencies, but it’s not like I can shop around. Bad meal at a restaurant? Eat somewhere else next time. Don’t like the way your car was repaired? Plenty of other mechanics. Don’t like the way you were treated by a public agency? Sorry, but they’re the same ones that you’re dealing with the next time.
I tried to never lose sight of the fact that as a public agency we needed to hold ourselves accountable to those we serve and those who pay our bills – the members of the public. One way that agencies do that is through accreditation. We were not perfect. We made mistakes. We made some (hopefully not too many) bad decisions. But accreditation was a way of holding ourselves accountable and showing the public that we were endeavoring to abide by high standards and provide them with the best service that we could. My belief was then, as now, that we owe it to those we serve to be the best that we can.
Accreditation keeps you from getting lazy. Accreditation is not just an event. It’s a journey that culminates every few years with another audit. Getting accredited is one thing. Staying accredited is another. Knowing that you’ll have to face auditors again keeps you from taking shortcuts that you shouldn’t take, and keeps you focused on doing things the right way.
Accreditation is an affirmation, a mark of excellence. Accreditation should make you and your employees proud of an achievement that few have achieved. Sadly, the majority of public agencies do not pursue accreditation. But for those that do, it is an accomplishment that everyone can take pride in – the agency, the employees, and the public. It means that you follow best practices, that you hold yourself to high standards, and that you are not afraid to open yourself up to scrutiny. It means that you believe in excellence and are not afraid to earn it. It’s easy to hang up a sign or print plates that say you’re the best. It’s another to be told that you are. That certificate of accreditation means far more than any recognition that you could give yourself.
Accreditation is tough. It’s supposed to be. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth anything. But the rewards, both tangible and intangible, make it all worthwhile.
David retired in 2014 after 31-year career in law enforcement and corrections. During his tenure, he was responsible for policy writing, supervision training design and development, and accreditation. He is currently a Lead Consultant for R&M Inc.