As a facilitator of workshops for the accrediting body CARF, I often get asked about the value of accreditation. As anyone who has been through it will tell, it’s a lot of work to prepare for accreditation! And the reality is that many agencies don’t have a choice. Their funding body mandates them to be accredited. Regardless, given the scarcity of resources to provide much needed services, it’s fair to ask if it provides a meaningful return on the investment.
The reality is that accreditation is not a silver bullet that automatically turns mediocre (or bad) agencies into good ones. It’s a review that focuses almost entirely on systems and processes. There aren’t standards that can force agencies to be innovative or entrepreneurial in their approach to problems. While there are standards that require the implementation of outcomes measurement and quality improvement processes, the accrediting body isn’t there to warrant that you’ve achieved all of the outcomes or that your improvement process has yielded significant results. More than a few organizations have gotten through accreditation with a ‘good enough’ approach to conformance. And at the end of the day, having a couple of people show up once every three or four years is hardly an intensive audit that could provide 100% assurance of quality services. But that isn’t why accreditation matters. I think it matters because it provides a time-tested tool for helping us to get better at what we do. It supports the implementation and continuous improvement of solid and consistent service delivery systems. While that might not be sufficient to spur innovation in service delivery, it is a necessary and stable foundation from which improvement and innovation can occur. Through accreditation, we get a chance to take a hard look at how we do things and to learn from (and share with) others in the field. And I think that getting accredited sends an important message about accountability to our clients and other stakeholders. It says that we are willing to allow ourselves to be judged against international standards and that we are interested in being the best we can be. While there are organizations that get through it without truly buying in to the opportunity it presents, that isn’t an indictment of accreditation. It simply reflects poorly on them.