According to the dictionary, perfection can be defined as “an instance of excellence.” In three public works departments across the country, we've captured these instances, and provide them to you as examples of how to build—and maintain—a near-perfect public works department.
These three stories have much in common: strong financial programs, dedicated constituent relations, high-tech systems in place. But the one thing that really stands out among PUBLIC WORKS magazine's 2005 Department of the Year winners is strong leadership. This leadership generally starts at the top and trickles down through the ranks to even the lowest man or woman on the totem pole.
“The one aspect of or person in a public works department that you can't live without would be an effective leader,” said Barbara J. Lucks, competition judge and materials recovery/education coordinator with public works in Springfield, Mo. “This ‘piece of the puzzle' will enable the other critical pieces to fall into place.”
John Keifer, public works director for Norfolk, Va.—honored as the 2005 Public Works Department of the Year—said that a key ingredient is a leader who can challenge and inspire employees. “I believe that many organizational structures can work, so long as the public works director and the senior leaders are committed to working together,” he said.
Encouraging and rewarding teamwork and a positive attitude is also an invaluable asset to any department. “A good attitude is essential to training a person and for getting the job done—and done correctly,” said Shawn Lindsey, competition judge and public works director in Athens, Tenn.
Tim Madhanagopal, another judge and plant manager of the water reclamation division in Orange County, Fla., agrees. “Dedicated and talented staff—they really make the difference in any organization,” he said.
“The public sector is a great place to work,” said Susan E. Vance, director of the Butler County Department of Environmental Services (BCDES), this year's Department of the Year Section winner. “As such, the public sector should command premier employees.”
The Next Step
So you've tackled the people problem. You've got the most talented and dedicated staff in place. What else can you do to merit an award from PUBLIC WORKS magazine next year?
Pam Broviak, competition judge and city engineer/public works director for LaSalle, III., said that capital equipment is on the top of her list. “Adequate equipment that is inspected, maintained, and replaced on a regular basis” is key to a successful program. Managing these assets, whether through a dedicated GASB 34 compliance program or through a specialized asset management program, also are key. These data, preferably in electronic format, should be readily available to all employees within the department.
“You must have the ability to keep good equipment with equipment replacement schedules, a well-run fleet maintenance program, and thorough inspections,” said Lindsey. This continuous monitoring of equipment and other assets will help ease the burden of capital spending in the long run.
Another key aspect all the judges agreed upon was communication, within the department, with constituents, and with elected officials. “Establish up-to-date communications systems to maximize employee interaction and communication,” said Robert B. Leventry, deputy director with BCDES. “Establish a trusting and communicating relationship with your board of directors or council. Make customer service the primary mission of your organization.”
This communication can be accomplished through things like mailings to citizens or public meetings. “The more our activities, skills, and challenges are understood by the community, the better we will be in terms of their support. Of course, this inclusion also causes us to elevate the level of performance within the department—it keeps the department accountable and the community receives that very favorably,” said Lucks.
To monitor and regulate a department's performance level, the American Public Works Association (APWA) accredits departments. As of today, 25 agencies nationwide have been accredited, demanding another level of professionalism from its employees. The Public Works and Municipal Utilities Departments in Chandler, Ariz., winner of PUBLIC WORKS' Department of the Year Honorable Mention, attained APWA accreditation in 2004, setting theirs above other entries in this year's program.
Accreditation can go a long way for a public works department. Take the Hazel Dell Sewer District, serving Washington's Clark County, which recently earned the APWA Accreditation Award. “The process for accreditation began four years ago when the district decided to do the self-assessment, but the policies and procedures were developed as needed,” said Bob Bandarra, district manager. “In addition, the APWA selected eight of the district's policies/procedures as ‘model practices,' which means they are the ‘best of the best' in those areas and will be made available to other public organizations in North America who are looking for best practices.”
And completing the work required to gain this “feather in the cap” is also a top-down approach, requiring strong leadership. Bandarra recommends having all employees take part in the accreditation procedures. “Let the lowest appropriate level draft the procedures that they are experts in,” he said. “Let their supervisors and managers review and update them based upon their understanding of how they fit into the overall context of meeting their mission, goals, and objectives. Have impacted parties review for clarity and unanticipated consequences on their departments for the final drafts. Make everyone feel involved in the success or failure of the accreditation.”
Based on what both the winners and judges recommended, here, in no particular order, is a list of essential skills and resources needed to create the vision of what a public works department should do to be successful. Much of this is based on responses from Norfolk's John Keifer.
- Positive attitude, adaptability, and flexibility in dealing with issues, citizens, and employees.
- Ability to respond to problems in imaginative ways.
- The organization should have unifying vision and values to guide it and should establish ambitious goals and objectives.
- Responsibility and authority should match, and authority to make decisions should be decentralized.
- Experienced engineering management for capital improvement projects.
- Accounting expertise that can provide analysis, reports, and graphical information on a monthly basis so that expenses can be tightly controlled and budgets can be met.
- Information technology expertise to make the GIS and asset management systems work well and be easily shared and keep personnel trained in the systems' capabilities.
- Develop and maintain a good working knowledge of applicable federal and state regulations.
- Marketing expertise to inform and gain public buy-in on projects and ongoing programs.
- Political skills to work well with elected officials, community leaders, and constituents. Maintain a level of formality, always be respectful, and develop trust.
- Constituent relations program to respond to complaints and problems-real or perceived (citizen requests). Be proactive. Seek opportunities to meet with civic groups and individuals. Educate the public and remember that you and your staff are ambassadors, representing local government. Present a clear message.
- Separate operating budgets and capital improvement budgets and ways to save funds for future capital projects.
- All asset data should be in electronic format and checked for accuracy, and it should be organized in an easily accessible way and be available to all city employees. It should capture institutional knowledge.
- GASB 34 data should be readily available.
- Smoothly functioning relationships with other city departments, such as fire department, police department, planning and development.
- Good relationships with neighboring cities, county, state, and federal governments.
- Sound disaster preparedness plan, supplemented with annual reviews and drills. Develop a crisis management plan that allows you to avoid disaster.
- Workforce whose diversity matches the citizenry.
- Innovative funding mechanisms that include various user fees, right of way fees, and impact fees.
- An atmosphere where issues are discussed, conflicts are resolved, and consensus or clear direction is developed.