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A bureaucrat driven by customer service

“Are you going to fire people?”

That was one of the first questions reporters lobbed at Miguel Angel Cardoza Ayala as he left El Salvador’s National Assembly building in 1996, having just been named head of a large government agency.

 Miguel Angel Cardoza: "The citizens are our clients"

During confirmation hearings in the assembly, Cardoza had pledged to modernize an agency called the Procuraduría General de la República, which was then besieged with accusations of incompetence and inefficiency. “People just assumed that ‘modernizing’ meant layoffs,” recalled Cardoza, an attorney and labor law specialist.

As it turned out, Cardoza found that he would need every one of the agency’s 700 employees, plus several hundred more. Unlike similarly named bodies in other Latin American countries, which function as public prosecutors or attorney generals, the Procuraduría in El Salvador provides legal assistance to low-income people in matters relating to family, labor, civil and criminal law. But until recently, El Salvador’s judicial system granted few real powers to public defenders, meaning that the Procuraduría was largely limited to handling administrative matters such as child-support payments. “We weren’t even doing that part well,” said Cardoza. Indeed, the agency was so slow in resolving delinquent child-support cases that a group of frustrated mothers had formed a pressure group, known as the Association of Mothers with Demands, to lobby for improvements.

Making matters worse, El Salvador was in the midst of an ambitious process of judicial reform. New family and penal codes gave broad powers and responsibilities to defendants’ attorneys, who now must play an aggressive advocacy role in oral court proceedings similar to those used in the United States.

“We had all these new mandates, but we were still using old processes,” said Cardoza. Private attorneys and nongovernmental legal aid agencies were also beginning to compete with the Procuraduría. “Citizens are clients, and we realized that our survival as an institution would ultimately depend on how satisfied our clients were.”

Cardoza called meetings with young employees from each of the agency’s divisions and asked them to help define its future. The consensus was that the Procuraduría should completely “reengineer” its procedures to better carry out its new responsibilities. Using local counterpart funds from a judicial reform project financed by the IDB, Cardoza’s staff hired management consultants who recommended a radical restructuring. Hierarchies were flattened from eight management levels to three. Overlapping tasks were boiled down into five basic service processes. Dozens of subdivisions were abolished and replaced with multidisciplinary service teams that handle all of a client’s needs in one place, at one time. A training program was launched to teach staff members the intricacies of the new legal codes and how to participate in oral trials.

Some senior managers who resisted the changes were asked to resign, but according to Cardoza, the vast majority of his staff embraced the reforms. Morale, which was dismal when he arrived, improved considerably when Cardoza fought for and won legislative approval for pay raises that put public defenders on a par with public prosecutors. Soon, requests for public defenders in the courts started outstripping the Procuraduría’s supply. Cardoza requested and received funds to hire and train some 300 additional attorneys.

“Before we even finished with the restructuring, people started talking about quality,” Cardoza recalled. “We wanted to be able to certify to people that we actually were improving the quality of our services, and that’s why we decided to get into ISO 9000,” he said. These quality management standards, published by the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva, provide a systematic way of ensuring that products or services meet a customer’s requirements.

Today, the Procuraduría’s employees follow detailed manuals describing procedures and quality standards. Each new client is asked to sign a “contract” that outlines his or her rights to a quality service. When a service has been completed, the client is asked whether she believes the contract was upheld, and that assessment is added to her file. Every six months, auditors from the agency’s new quality office conduct random evaluations to ensure that employees are fulfilling their commitments.

“Just last week I was personally audited,” Cardoza said during an interview in July. “They asked me to show how I was guaranteeing that all employees knew of the latest quality policies.” He must have passed the audit, because later that month the National Assembly voted to renew Cardoza’s mandate for a second three-year term.

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