Can ISO 9001 certification of water utilities in developing countries be used to evaluate institutional sustainability?

Provision of reliable water services is critical for sustainable development. Next year (2015), the United Nations will review achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Based on previous trends, The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme estimates that about 700 million people will not have access to safe drinking water in 2015. During the post- 2015 era, urban water utilities in less developed regions of the world will face greater challenges in extending and sustainably providing water services, where, it is projected, the urban population will increase from 2.57 billion in 2010, to 3.95 billion in 2030 (UN-Habitat, 2010). Consistent with various scholars, we argue in this paper that there can be no sustainable development in any sector without the support of effective and sustainable institutions. Whereas indicators for measuring improved quality of service are established in policy and practice, there has been no agreement between policy makers, practitioners and academicians on how best to measure institutional sustainability for improved organisational performance. An increasing number of urban water utilities in developing countries are adopting quality management systems (QMS) based on ISO 9000 series of standards in order to improve their performance. This paper reports on the results of a study commissioned by the World Bank to assess whether ISO 9001 QMS offer a sound framework for evaluating institutional sustainability of urban water utilities. The study was conducted in 2011/12 through a comprehensive literature review and primary data collection from two case study urban water utilities in sub-Saharan Africa. Primary data were collected through semi-structured interviews and questionnaires with senior and middle-level managers; Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) with lower cadre staff of the utilities; and analysis of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) before and after ISO certification. Evidence from the literature showed that there is a plausible link between ISO 9000 QMS standards and institutional sustainability. Field data from the two African water utilities corroborated the findings from the literature. However, findings from the case studies indicate that there is no causal link between ISO 9001 certification and institutional sustainability. The study shows that the purpose and motivation for implementing ISO 9001 QMS are important moderating factors. Furthermore, ISO 9001 framework does not adequately cater for many factors in the external environment of the service providers, which are critical for institutional sustainability. There is need, therefore, to develop a more effective assessment tool for tracking a water utility’s progress towards institutional sustainability.