CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership

Pickles, Commodities and Quality

The Big G Discount Store will sell you a one gallon jar of plain pickles at a rock bottom price. You won’t find unique or different pickles. You can’t get a large or small jar of pickles. The pickles may not appeal to everyone attending your next party. But you will find a uniform, consistent, low price generic commodity that for most consumers represents a value in terms of cost/benefit. And, the Big G Discount store is thriving. 

But, uniform, consistent, inexpensive, generic commodities don’t define quality.

The pickles are safe and wholesome. The pickles are packaged and sold on a mass scale as a commodity. Cell phones, computers, and services are becoming commodities. Cheap, uniform, and consistent commodities, whether they be Big G pickles, burgers, denim jeans, or residential placement slots, are attractive.

Commodity means products and services without brand value – corn or peanuts, bricks or nails, gasoline, attendant care, vocational training, or supported living service.

But, uniform, consistent, inexpensive, generic commodities don’t define quality.

What is Quality?


Webster’s dictionary characterizes quality as “essential character,”… “superiority in kind,” and … “a degree of excellence.”

This definition of quality suggests the possibility of different degrees of excellence or superiority across organizations. Quality or excellence is not evenly distributed across organizations, communities, or state systems of service and support. Quality follows the distribution of a bell shaped curve. A few products, services, or places excel; a few are really terrible; and most are in the middle. For example, we may find the same uniformity in commodities such as Big G pickles or Burger Drive-thrus. But, we don’t expect to find the same quality across all pickles, restaurants, health care clinics, or disability organizations. We both expect and find differences in quality and we shop and make selections to match our preferences and expectations.

Quality in Human Services

In contrast to the distribution of quality along a bell shaped curve (and our expectation of differences), assurances of health, safety and welfare must meet an absolute minimum uniform requirement. We expect that all restaurants, health care clinics and disability organizations will meet fundamental assurances. Those organizations unable to meet the requirements of health, safety and welfare are not permitted to operate as public or private entities.

These definitions of generic commodities, assurances and quality provide us with several assumptions for the following discussion.

  • Setting, striving for, and reaching uniform generic standards, guidelines, and protocols are not necessarily an indicator of quality.

  • For Basic Assurances®, this achievement is mandatory and non-negotiable.

  • In the case of responsive services and supports (licensed/certified), the timeline for achievement may vary.

  • But, compliance does not mean quality. Moreover, “quality assurance” can be a contradiction – there may be no quality in compliance with the uniform generic basic assurances. Separate “quality” from “assurance.” Assurances are one thing; quality is another. Similarly, meeting the uniform requirements for licensing or certification is not an indicator of quality. Remember, we define quality as, “…superiority in kind,” and … “a degree of excellence.”

  • If human services operated in a market economy where people were free and able to shop, choose, and reconsider quality purchases, we could establish requirements for basic assurances and then simply measure the quality that people received from their choices. But, the market economy does not pertain to human services, and until it does, we will need minimal requirements for responsive services.

Basic Assurances®

Basic Assurances® are essential, fundamental, and non-negotiable requirements for all service and support providers. Assurances are not statements of intent or promises – they are demonstrations of successful operation in the areas of health, safety, and welfare.

  • All organizations whether public or private, large or small, providing services and/or supports to people must demonstrate basic assurances or they should not be in operation

  • The demonstrations of assurances of health, safety, and welfare are prerequisites for providing Responsive Services and enhancing the quality of life and quality of community life for all people.

Responsive Services®

Responsive Services® are based on contemporary service models and they directly facilitate the quality of life for both individuals with disabilities and their communities. There are four characteristics of responsive services and supports:

  • Responsive services demonstrate basic assurances

  • Responsive services meet federal and state standards and protocols that are based on contemporary service models. These public sector requirements and guidelines are statements of minimal expectation for all organizations receiving public funding and operating within the regulatory authority of the states or local community

  • Responsive services directly result in an increased quality of life for people receiving services

  • Responsive services increase social capital and the quality of community life for all citizens

Quality of Life and Quality of Community Life®

Quality of life is about people living their own lives and pursuing their dreams, and community quality of life is about the capacity of local communities to facilitate the quality of life of all its members.

Basic Assurances® and Responsive Services® are ways of helping people to their quality of life. Quality of life is the outcome or end point for all of our disability and human service activity. At the end of the day we can all ask the question, “How have these basic assurances and these responsive services impacted the person’s quality of life. What difference did the service make?”

Responsive Services® build social capital for all citizens and increase the capacity of communities to support all people in an inclusive society.

In partnership with these key stakeholders, CQL defines and develops reliable and valid systems of measurement of quality of life and community quality of life that increase accountability, responsiveness, and quality performance in human and social service systems.

In Conclusion

Regulations, standards, guidelines and frameworks for service establish minimal requirements. We hope, and sometimes insist, that services and supports will exceed the minimal requirements. But, history demonstrates that minimal requirements soon become the standard of quality. And with that we find, regrettably, that claims of excellence and quality are linked with the minimal requirements.

Quality, as we define it, goes beyond minimal requirements. It’s found in making person-centered quality of life measures happen and in increasing social capital and community quality of life for all citizens.

James Gardner, Ph.D.
Former President and CEO, CQL

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