Quality assurance in career guidance services - a tri-variable model (download in pdf)
In the majority of the Italian Jobcentres and career guidance agencies, quality is assured by employing the services of qualified career practitioners. However, from a perspective of continual improvement and increased openness towards the service user, it may be useful to define theoretically what is meant by quality and to study how career guidance services can be further improved. The aim of this article is to present an easy to understand and simple to apply model based on the active involvement of career counsellors.
2. A model for quality in career guidance services
A good quality product or service is one which fully meets the expectations of the customer and is recognised by experts in that particular field.
Reference to experts is necessary as, in many instances, the customer is not capable of fully assessing the overall quality of the service or product. For example, in the medical services, the patient is able to correctly evaluate elements such as the waiting room reception, the appointments system, the 'turn-taking' procedure, the courtesy shown by the doctor and the clarity of his explanations (all aspects to do with the way in which the service is supplied). However, the patient is unable to assess the most important elements, those of accuracy of diagnosis and prescribed treatment (aspects to do with the efficacy of the service). Even though efficacy is by far the most important, both facets contribute to the overall quality of service.
Customer expectations can be formed from previous experiences (e.g. I would describe as poor quality service having to queue at a post office where the queues are longer compared to the one that I normally use to pay my bills), or from the customer's personal idea of what constitutes good service (e.g. no queue at the post office). In some cases, particularly when the customer is not familiar with the aims of a service or has never used it before, he or she may have too high or too low an expectation. For this reason, it is helpful to clearly define the aims and minimum standards of the service being offered (usually by means of a written document).
The above exposition serves to highlight that good quality is, generally speaking, a relative concept and subject to constant change. A product or service may no longer be considered of good quality if the expectations of the customer and/or the parameters of the experts change. From a certain point of view, good quality is a 'social' concept; the result of negotiation among those involved in the planning, assessment, supply and realisation of a product or service.
In general, quality is assured by an expedient combination of:
- A. Human resources
- B. Other productive factors, excluding human resources (note 1) (eg: premises, computers, computerised data banks)
- C. Productive processes (note 2) (e.g. the necessary procedures for booking appointments for personal consultations).
We could say that the production of quality products (from now on, if not otherwise specified, the term ‘products’ also means 'services') requires the availability of optimum productive factors which are then utilised by qualified human resources in accordance with optimum processes. So, as it is based on three variables, our model can be called a tri-variable model for quality assurance). For example, the quality of a short course on job search techniques depends not only on the counsellor's ability to take groups and on his/her knowledge of the subject (use of the best human resources) but also on the availability of a suitably equipped room in which to hold the course (use of other optimum productive factors).
Another example is in the related field of job matching, where the service will not function well
- without a computerised data bank (other optimum productive factors)
- if there is insufficient information held on each jobseeker: age, qualifications, etc. (best practice)
- if the method used for job matching does not include:
A. the forwarding of at least 5 curriculum vitae to the company concerned
B. a prior telephone call to the selected applicants in order to check if they are still
looking for work and would accept a job offer. (best practice)
- if the counsellors gathering the personal data are not capable of conducting interviews (optimum human resources).
In order to be able to apply this model to career guidance, two factors must be considered:
A. career guidance is a service incorporated within employment policy and its overall effectiveness depends on the availability of other services such as providing opportunities for jobseekers to serve apprenticeships or attend training courses. For example, the overall effectiveness of career advice targeted at young people taking part in compulsory training schemes is improved if there are a number of training courses or apprenticeships available from which to choose. It is necessary, therefore, that the public authorities examine the quality of service overall, otherwise, despite having an excellent career guidance service, there is a risk of providing a poor global service. From now on, however, in this article we are referring to the quality of career guidance services only.
B. The term 'career guidance' covers many different activities: individual advice, group activities, the production of informative material and the setting up of Internet sites etc., each of which may be aimed at different categories of clients. The realisation of quality service will require, therefore, a particular combination of practices, productive resources and standards of professionalism, which will vary according to circumstances and which must be individualised depending on type of service and, at times, on client sector.
In order to attain quality service in career guidance it is necessary, therefore, to draw up general aims for each of the individual services involved and establish how those services will be supplied. Then, in order to achieve the aims, it must be decided how best to combine human resources with other productive factors and productive processes.
3. The counsellors' role in the establishment and regulation of quality standards in career guidance services
It is of fundamental importance that the process of establishing and regulating quality standards sees the direct and full involvement of counsellors (at agency, public service or professional association level), because:
- 1. thanks to their experience, they are able to easily define the objectives and identify the optimum combination of factors
- 2. in this way, they can be directly involved (and therefore motivated) in the improvement of the service.
In order to study what the elements of service quality are and how to improve them, all that is required is a blank double entry table which should then be presented to the counsellors for discussion and completion. It should show, on the one hand, the career guidance services provided and, on the other, the aims of the service, human resources, other productive factors and processes (note 3). The following is an example of a completed table relating to career guidance.
The points marked ‘ESSENTIAL' are those considered crucial for providing quality service, whilst the others are not yet fully operable (note 6). Once completed, the table must be discussed with the manager or, in the case of services contracted out to external organisations, the contractor and approved by them.
Once approved and made public, the table:
- forms the basis for explaining to the client what he/she should expect from the service. It is sufficient to explain it to clients informally, advising them who to contact if dissatisfied with the service.
- is a tool for bringing about improvements in services. The non-essential points suggest future strategies for improving the service.
- is a tool for developing common standards amongst different agencies. It isn't actually necessary for each group of counsellors to draw up their own quality standards, as those already put in place by others can also be adopted. For example, an agency may decide to follow the quality standards of the District of Florence Jobcentres or those of AICO (Associazione Italiana Operatori e Consulenti di Orientamento - the Italian Association of career Guidance Counsellors and Advisers –note 7).
- is a means by which public bodies can impose standards. For example, it may be decided that only those organisations which provide the service in accordance with the quality standards of the District of Florence Jobcentres, or those of AICO, should obtain funding.
It is likely, following an initial period, that the quality standards of the individual services will end up centring around two or three principal models.
In our opinion, it is very important that a method of determining quality standards is established which takes a bottom up approach involving the counsellors. It is also important that it should not be totalitarian, that is to say, it should not favour only one out of the many approaches that exist in career guidance.
Also, particularly in the case of career guidance standards, the principals of 'community standards' and of 'the respectable minority' used in U.S. law for evaluating medical or psychotherapeutic practices should apply. This means that all those practices adopted by the majority of counsellors, or those that can be shown to have a significant following among counsellors, are acceptable (note 8).
Public bodies or professional associations (for example, in Italy: ISFOL, Italia Lavoro, Formez, AICO) could promote the spread of national standards by fostering nationwide collaboration among groups of counsellors in drawing up quality standards.
4. Quality assurance in career guidance services
Once having established the optimum combination of elements for the supply of quality service, how do we check its actual attainment?
In general, there are six main methods of assuring good quality. Let's take an example (note 9): a public organisation pays for the distribution of bread to the needy and wants to be sure that the bread supplied by the contracted bakery meets agreed standards on taste and nutrition. What can it do?
1. carry out a regular check (hourly, daily or weekly) on the product specifications (an approach based on the direct inspection of product specifications)
2. ask a random sample of consumers whether the bread is to their satisfaction (an approach based on checking for customer satisfaction)
3. ask the contractor to ensure that the bread is prepared by experienced bakers who can show that they have undergone an appropriate period of training and/or have acquired lengthy experience in the sector (an approach based on workers' professionalism)
4. require that the contractor have suitable machinery and use only the best ingredients according to prearranged specifications (an approach based on checking the use of optimum production factors)
5. ask the contractor to ensure that the bread is prepared to the highest standards, according to a prearranged process which sets out the quantities of ingredients, proving times and temperatures, cooking times and temperatures, etc. (an approach based on checking for process optimisation).
6. If, instead, the contractor is supplying a service rather than a product, then the approach based on result assessment may be used. For example: following treatment is the patient any better?
So, depending on the circumstances, it is possible to use a single method of checking for quality (monofactorial approach) or, if a single method is considered insufficient, it could be combined with others (multifactorial approach).
Which approach or combination of approaches can best assure good quality in career guidance services?
The approach based on result assessment (no.6.) does not seem very suitable for many of the services provided under career guidance. The participation in career guidance activities is actually only one of the elements which, together with many others, bring about positive results in the search for work. The possibility of any given individual finding work also depends on characteristics such as age, sex, physical condition, level of education and experience, place of residence and network of contacts.
The approach based on inspection of product specifications is, generally, the one by far the most used and often the most economic (the underlying philosophy being: it's the result that counts, not how it is achieved). This approach works better where the characteristics of the product are assessable according to physical or 'objective' parameters (e.g. shape, weight, chemical composition, torsional resistance, fire resistance, etc.). Nevertheless, in the case of services (including many career guidance services) where characteristics are more problematic to assess, there are several examples of this type of inspection being used. One such example is the ‘mystery shopper’ used in the English career services. In practice, this involves an expert who, working incognito, uses the services provided and carries out an evaluation according to pre-established parameters.
The client's own evaluation of the service is very important, and recourse to this method is consistent with the approach taken in all career guidance activities; that of respecting the client's judgement and promoting client autonomy. Client satisfaction levels can be measured in various ways. In the District of Florence Jobcentres, for example, the evaluation of specialist personalised career guidance services is carried out by means of an anonymous questionnaire which is systematically handed out to a representative cross section of clients. The questionnaire collects quantitative and qualitative evaluations of two perspectives: ‘satisfaction’ and ‘usefulness’ (the questionnaire, together with an account of the procedure for collection and analysis of the data, is shown in Appendix 3). This approach, however, for reasons indicated in paragraph 2, cannot be used alone. In general, customer dissatisfaction must always be taken into consideration whilst customer satisfaction alone is not enough.
The approach based on checking practitioners' professionalism is that traditionally used in all independent professions including, up to now, in the majority of career guidance agencies. The passing of a nationally recognised examination allows entry to a professional register in which all those qualified to practise the profession in question are listed, subdivided by place of residence. Having taken into consideration that this approach is the only one used in those professions (e.g. medical or psychotherapeutic –note 10) where bad practice can have much more harmful effects than in career guidance, the same approach may be endorsed in career guidance provided the test of professionalism is based on valid criteria. However, as already stated in paragraph 2, whilst such an approach works well in some areas of career guidance, for example, giving advice on vocational choices, it doesn't work so well in others, for example, the initial reception procedures where, as well as the professionalism of the counsellor, other elements such as availability and spaciousness of facilities and quality and availability of information are strongly related to quality of service.
The approach based on process optimisation is important for the supply of those services (e.g. job matching) which, in order to function well, require specific, well structured procedures. However, it doesn't work as well in services which provide career guidance, counselling or information. Furthermore, this approach may be unsafe if one specific procedure is imposed over another rather than being freely developed by the counsellors themselves.
To sum up, even the choice of which approach to adopt for assuring quality in career guidance can be wide ranging, depending on the type of service under consideration. Nevertheless, the approach should be decided by counsellors at the same time as determining the quality standards. With the addition of the method of quality assurance, the double entry table then becomes as follows:
So, to summarise, the steps for putting in place quality standards and ways of monitoring them are as follows:
- 1. On the part of the counsellors: specification of general aims and determining of objectives for supplying services (in agreement with the manager or contractor). Identification of quality standards and how to monitor them.
- 2. On the part of the manager (or contractor): approval of the proposed objectives and standards, and their implementation
- 3. The drawing up of a customer service charter
- 4. The setting up and application (ongoing) of identified procedures for guaranteeing the desired quality standards.
1. In economics, 'productive factors' is the term used for every ingredient of the production process, for example, labour, raw materials – land, water, minerals, and reproducible factors (machinery, buildings, etc.). Source: La nuova Enciclopedia del diritto e dell’economia Garzanti (1989), pages 568-569. (extract translated from Italian into English)
2. We use the word processes when talking in general or when we want to refer to non-standardised systems (that is to say, those carried out as the operator believes best), and we use the word procedures when pre-established methods must be followed. As a rule, the term procedures is used for those processes which, in order to be effective, have to be carried out according to a specific modus operandi.
3. Shown in appendix 1
4. The contents of the individual fields are illustrative. The table does, however, reflect our experience in the District of Florence Jobcentres.
5. Shown in appendix 2
6. Only the most important variables that can't be presupposed should be shown in the table. The attainment of the desired quality standards actually depends on innumerable factors (in our case, for example, it is also necessary that counsellors speak Italian, that they don't offend the clients, that a comfortable temperature exists in the counselling areas, etc.), but most are either of little significance or can reasonably be taken for granted. So, for example, in the column intended for productive processes it isn't necessary, as a rule, to describe the whole productive process but only the stages which require special procedures (which are then described separately).
7. www.aiconet.it, now www.assipro.it
8. Refer to Beutler L.E., Bongar B., Shurkin J.N. (1998), A consumer’s guide to psychotherapy, Oxford University Press, pagg.56-58.
9. The example is taken from our article La qualità nei servizi di orientamento (Quality in career guidance services) in Quaderni di Orientamento, n.20, March 2002
10. This was the situation in Italy until 2001 but since 2002 it has been obligatory to also complete a certain number of hours training each year.
11. The survey form and a description of the procedure are shown in Appendix 3.
For Appendix 2 and 3 see pdf version.