The Baldrige Excellence Framework In Government

Learn everything your local government needs to know about the Baldrige Framework.
The Baldrige Excellence Framework In Government
Learn everything your local government needs to know about the Baldrige Framework.

In recent years, more and more local governments have adopted performance excellence programs. When successful, these programs unify a city's efforts to operate more efficiently, strengthen fiscal responsibility, and better serve citizens. The Baldrige Excellence Framework is one of these programs and is arguably the most esteemed. In this article, we’ll explain what it is and give you insider information about the Baldrige Framework from city officials who know it well—the 2017 award recipients from Fort Collins, Colorado.

Already familiar with Baldrige? Skip right to our interview with Fort Collins, One City’s Journey to Excellence: Baldrige Style.

What is the Baldrige Excellence Framework?

Created in 1987, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award is “the highest level of national recognition for performance excellence that a U.S. organization can receive.” To engage in the rigorous and competitive application process, organizations must implement the Baldrige framework, which is designed to improve performance and get sustainable results. Part of the process also includes sharing successful performance strategies and information with other organizations to raise standards of excellence across industries.

The Baldrige Excellence Framework assesses performance in seven key categories:

  1. Leadership
  2. Planning and strategy
  3. Customers
  4. Measurement & knowledge management
  5. Workforce
  6. Process
  7. Results

Most organizations must win top honors from a regional and/or state program that is a member of the Alliance for Performance Excellence. These preliminary “local” competitions help applicants establish readiness for the national Baldrige Award.

While many organizations have achieved recognition at the local and state levels, only 106 organizations have earned the national Baldrige Award to date.

Why would a city use the Baldrige Excellence Framework?

It may seem curious as to why a municipality would dedicate so much time and effort to winning an award when there are so many other things competing for internal resources. But being a Baldrige national award recipient is much more than a symbolic honor or feather in a city’s cap. Government organizations that apply for the Baldrige award are going above and beyond—they are committing to the Baldrige framework because it offers a proven way to:

  • Improve performance and foster innovation
  • Achieve world-class results
  • Drive lasting strategic change
  • Ensure continuous improvement through self-assessments

While all of the above are valuable, applicants cite the last bullet point in particular as driving all other benefits. The self-assessments are based on in-depth organizational reviews which are very valuable. The Baldrige criteria for performance excellence is strict and the evaluation process culminates in a written feedback report. The detailed, individualized report is compiled by a team of experts and includes:

  • Key Themes: An executive summary identifying a city’s biggest strengths and improvement opportunities in relation to processes and results.
  • Comments: Six detailed, individualized, and actionable strengths and improvement opportunities for each of the 17 criteria items.
  • Individual Scoring Range: A percentage scoring range for each of the 17 criteria items, helping organizations determine relative performance.
  • Scoring Distribution & Comparison: Percentage of applicants that scored in each of the eight individual scoring bands and chart comparing your organization to median applicant scores.

The Baldrige report is a tangible tool that helps organizations focus on strengths and prioritize improvements, in an accelerated cycle of self-assessment. For most cities, getting this type of feedback would normally require bringing in prohibitively expensive consultants. The Baldrige Excellence Framework certainly demands an intense level of effort and focus, but is also cost effective and has an exceptionally positive impact on performance. Ultimately, this helps create better city management and happier citizens.

One City’s Journey to Excellence: Baldrige Style

In 2017, the City of Fort Collins was named a recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.  The Baldrige Award is a Presidential-level honor recognizing exemplary practices among American organizations and businesses who have proven themselves worthy of this recognition through their unceasing drive for innovation, visionary leadership, and administrative improvement. Their stories and their journeys serve as national role models for performance excellence for other businesses across the country to follow.

We sat down with two of the City’s team members–Budget Director Lawrence Pollack and the Program Manager for Performance Excellence, Terri Runyan–for a Q&A.  Sharing is part of the City’s organizational make-up.  This level of openness and transparency reflects the love and commitment of Darin Atteberry, City Manager, to the local government community.   Here is their journey…in their own words.

Why did you choose Baldrige over another framework?  Was there something you gravitated toward?

Lawrence:  This came about because of Darin’s relationship with the previous CEO of Poudre Valley Health System (PVHS), Dr. Rulon Stacey, who had been leading his organization on a Baldrige journey for over 10 years.  Sometime in the late 2000’s, Dr. Stacey said to Darin–you’ve got to come and check this out; you’ve got to see what we are doing here.  It was through their peer-to-peer relationship that Darin was energized into looking more deeply into the regional equivalent of Baldridge.  That was the catalyst–hearing about the benefits that a performance of excellence journey provided to PVHS.  Darin was motivated.

What were those benefits? What were you doing at the time where you felt like there were some gaps or you would need this performance excellence framework?

Terri:  We had a lot of great things we were doing.  We had a process called Budgeting for Outcomes that really helped us be more systematic in how we budgeted.  At that time, we had just implemented an employee performance evaluation system, as well as a number of other initiatives across the City organization. What Darin realized is that we had all these great things happening but there was no one person who understood how they intersected except for him.  So, the question became, “What can I use that can help me really make this more systematic for the organization and make sure we are aligned.”

If you look at the Baldrige handbook [below], there are four different quadrants of pictures and the one with the arrows going in different directions…that was us.  But when you start to put the Baldrige framework in place, those arrows start to line up and that’s your ultimate goal–that your strategic plan, your budget, how you talk to the community, and how you help ensure your employees are all aligned.  That was the alignment piece that we were missing at the time.  When we were asked the question of “what is our secret sauce,” we had a hard time answering.  We didn’t know the “how;” we just knew the “what.”


So, it was not like you were starting from scratch and it was complete chaos.

Lawrence: It was how do we take it to another level…the next level.  We have a community that has very high expectations for service delivery.  We had a very good starting point, so the question was really, “how do we up our game?”

Terri:  Yes. How do we go from good to great?

You used a phrase “on the journey.”  Can you tell me about this journey and the type of rigors you have to put in place just to even achieve the regional level?

Terri: In order to begin our journey, we couldn’t just apply at the Baldrige national level.  We had to qualify through a legitimate state/regional program.  For us, that was Colorado Performance Excellence, which later became Rocky Mountain Performance Excellence (RMPEx). The state programs help you break it down, and for us that became a four-step process.  Through this process, it really made us think as an organization about our core competencies and our strategic challenges and advantages.  So, we began as an organization to have those conversations around who are we and how we operate.  Those are executive level conversations that take hours and hours of sifting through.

Lawrence: And those are really challenging conversations.

Terri: The Baldrige Excellence Framework is divided into seven categories.  Baldrige believes that in this framework you need to be high performing in:

  1. Leadership
  2. Strategy
  3. Customers
  4. Measurement, analysis, and knowledge management
  5. Workforce
  6. Operations
  7. Results

At the state/regional RMPEx program process, there is a four-tiered award approach, and once we reached the highest-level award, we qualified to submit an application for the national Baldrige award.  That is why it can take at least four to five years for the journey.  The beauty of Baldrige is that all along the way you have a group of qualified examiners from outside your organization who are reading your application and scoring each category. If you receive enough points in the application review process, then examiners come on site to verify, clarify and amplify what they learned from reading your application.

The last part of the process, once they are finished with the on-site evaluation, is that they provide you with a feedback report. The feedback report highlights what your organization is doing well and what are your opportunities for improvement; it is one of the most valuable parts of Baldrige–getting an outside perspective on how to take your organization to the next level of performance.

What happens if you don’t achieve a level?

Terri: In 2011, when we applied at the second of the four levels at the regional program (Rocky Mountain Performance Excellence), the City did not achieve the award at that level.  Our opportunities for improvement or “OFIs” were identified through the on-sight visit and feedback report.  We chose to take a year off and actually work on key OFIs.  Then, the next year we applied one level above and got it.

Lawrence:  Often times organizations start where this is a side activity.  The Baldrige journey is not a side activity but a philosophy of integrating these concepts into day-to-day operations.  It’s at that point you start to get traction.  It’s a holistic evaluation of an entire organization’s performance.

Terri: Our organization started that way, too, until we began to understand the true nature of what the criteria and the framework can help us do.  In the first few years, we had executive oversight but not total organizational buy in to really making changes across the City that were going to make a difference.  Once the commitment of executive leaders was realized, that was a huge turning point.   It’s a “we thing.”  It was not an “office thing” or the sole responsibility of a performance excellence person.  It was truly an organization-wide commitment.

What would you recommend for a smaller city with fewer resources to get this done?

Terri: I was hired for the performance excellence role, and it is about one-third of my job.  PVHS had two people devoted specifically to the Baldrige process.  We could not do this.  What we did that might make small organizations feel different is organize the effort as a team approach.  I didn’t do this by myself.  Lawrence is on two Baldrige category teams–two and four; because of his role, that’s where ClearPoint comes in in a big way. We had category teams of 7-10 people from across the organization that were part of the initial overall Baldrige journey.  It was a group effort in writing the application, but we also had a consultant.

For a smaller organization, I would say that you need leadership on board, someone to be the point person, and utilize staff and leaders from across the organization who have a passion for continuous improvement.  We had one or two executives on each of the category teams as an executive sponsor which helped to create buy-in.  As the teams put actions from OFIs in place, we began to see improvements at the organization and we started thinking “wow, this stuff really works.”

As an example, in 2011 performance measurement was one of our first big OFIs. Lawrence’s department spearheaded our Citywide and systematic performance measurement effort which was the catalyst for our Community Dashboard; and now it’s a best practice.  This, along with other improvements to our performance measurement program, helped us go from an OFI to a best practice, and we are realizing how much better as an organization we function because of that.

Lawrence:  When you read the Baldrige Excellence Framework, it can sound like a different language.  “Baldrigeze” we call it. It may be difficult for any city, county or state to interpret the criteria questions. Therefore, a suggestion would be to connect with another government agency who has pursued using the Baldrige Excellence Framework criteria to help understand what the criteria question is asking for.  And the questions are thought provoking for any organization. For example, what are your core competencies? In other words, what makes you as an organization stand out?

You mentioned earlier how involved you are with the Baldrige community and sharing your experience.  Can other cities do this for other cities, or should they hire a dedicated consultant?

Lawrence:  That’s part of our organizational make up. I think about how many conversations I’ve had with different entities over the years about our Community Dashboard–easily seventy to eighty organizations across the country.  In areas where we have accolades, we just do that; we share with other communities who are interested in what we have done.  But there is also an expectation at the Baldrige level that, if you get the national designation, you have a commitment to give back to others who are starting or already on their journey.  There is a solid expectation that you will give back to other communities and share your own learnings.

Terri: When you become a Baldrige recipient, an expectation is that you coordinate two sharing days, and March 7th will be our third. We had our first sharing event last August and the second was in conjunction with the Baldrige Regional Event that was held in Denver in October.  The purpose of Sharing Days is that we talk about the performance excellence journey and the learnings we had as an organization. The intention is that we share the good, bad and ugly of how we evolved as an organization.   Darin has so much of a love for municipal government that he just wants to continue to do whatever we can to help other communities learn from our mistakes and our successes.

What has changed in the journey of going from good to great? What has changed for your city and what are some of the big picture shifts?

Lawrence: If I think about the different strides we’ve made with metrics and our use of them–that came out of an OFI in one of the feedback reports.  The fact that we had lots of different plans, but we didn’t have a true strategic plan–that came out of an OFI.  We probably get thirty to forty OFIs with each feedback report.  As an organization, we had to determine which ones resonate with our organization–where do we want to invest our resources that will have the biggest impact and return on that investment for us. You’re not going to address all the OFIs that come in, but those were two really large ones and that prompted our Community Dashboard and our strategic planning process.

Now, we have our Strategy Map reviews where we, at the executive level, review the strategic objectives in the strategic plan through the lens of 1) the metrics aligned with the strategic objectives in the strategic plan and 2) every program and service funded in our budget–i.e. our commitments to our community.  All of those metrics and initiatives are evaluated four times per year and that has really had a huge impact on helping us discuss performance and understand where we need to improve.  This would not have happened had we not had a strategic plan or a more robust systematic approach to performance measurement–both of which came out of Baldrige feedback.

You mentioned you had a lot of plans. Were they operational in nature?

Lawrence: We’ve always had tons of plans, but they were not necessarily aligned.  What we didn’t have was something actionable from a Citywide budget perspective.  To implement our strategic plan, we began by doing an environmental scan using plans at the department level–City Plan, which is a long-term visionary plan, input from council, and input from community.  And we asked ourselves, “of all these things we could focus on, where do we really need to focus over the next five years?”  We then integrate our biennial budget process and evaluate what we can accomplish of the strategic plan in the next two years.  We then refresh that five-year view every two years.  And as a result, we’ve shifted our thinking in that our budgeting process actually begins with our strategic plan.

Terri: We are organized around our strategic plan and the Council has adopted it.  So, now, as we onboard Council, we have a better vision of what we want to happen in the next two years to inform the budget.  As our council onboarding process has improved, they can focus more strategically and at the policy level instead of operational, which has been a good shift for them, too.

Lawrence:  At a high level, there are two key concepts from Baldrige that have helped us the most.  First, it drills home the importance and value of a systematic and enterprise-wide approach.  We did lots of great things, but they were in pockets.  So, the question is “how do you leverage that and get that across your entire organization in a systematic way?”  Second, there is a concept called ADLI – what is our Approach, how do we Deploy, what kind of Learning do we get, and how do we Integrate?  That is a different way of thinking, and those two concepts have helped transform our organization.

How has ClearPoint helped you manage Baldrige? What are the benefits of having a strategic management software put in place in tandem with Baldrige?

Lawrence: ClearPoint allows us to demonstrate the linkage and alignment between elements of strategy, metrics, and initiatives.  That is very powerful and really important.  The reason I say that is because we had been working on different things with metrics for a number of years, yet we knew we were missing some alignment in our organization.  Believe me, I was nervous about training our senior level managers how to use a new software system to enter data that we would then be discussing on a monthly basis with our executives.

The fact is that ClearPoint is intuitive and easy to use.  In fact, we were able to teach them to use the software system in less than ten minutes.  When they could see the reasons why we are asking for this information, and how we are aligning metrics and the initiatives that are funded in the budget to our strategy, light bulbs started going off.  Department heads were saying “I get it. I understand why we are doing this!”

That was really impressive.  Without a system like ClearPoint that allowed us to integrate those different elements, I don’t think we would have made the progress that we have.  Once the data is in ClearPoint, it takes minutes to generate reports for our monthly executive Strategy Map meetings.

Terri: ClearPoint is a systematic approach; it is one way, one method, one approach.  The use of ClearPoint is a consistent process throughout the organization which really supports the Baldrige framework in the world of ADLI. I don’t think we would be the high performing Baldrige organization we are today without what ClearPoint has helped us accomplish in strategy and measurement processes. That said, we still have numerous OFIs for us to continue our performance excellence journey.


Whether it’s Baldrige or another performance excellence framework, ClearPoint gives local governments a space to manage strategy, initiatives, metrics, and anything else they want to be tracking. With ClearPoint, it’s easy to address your OFIs and take a systematic approach to your strategy.

The Baldrige Excellence Framework In Government

Tricia Jessee

Manager of Implementation & Services & Pizza Aficionado

Tricia manages our implementation and onboarding team to ensure the success of ClearPoint customers.