A reader recently complimented my definition of public works. He’d contacted me about submitting an article, and was referring to the magazine’s author guidelines.

“I love your Who We Are intro,” he said. “We’ve been trying to define public works ourselves.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him how long it took to write it. And that I could never do it in 25 words or less.

Neither can the only professional organization devoted to your work, the American Public Works Association (APWA):

“One size definitely does not fit all. Because of the multifaceted, ever-evolving nature of public works, we may never arrive at a final definition. But, for now, the following seems appropriate: Public works is the combination of physical assets, management practices, policies, and personnel necessary for government to provide and sustain structures and services essential to the welfare and acceptable quality of life for its citizens.”

The traditional concept of public works is that government provides services via facilities it owns, operates, and maintains paid for by taxes that government collects. A nice, clean definition, with both funding and provision done by the public entity for the public good.

But some communities contract out things like refuse collection or engineering and design. Some contract out the operation of facilities, like a water or wastewater treatment plant.

Gas, electricity, and communication utilities are usually privately owned and operated. But because they exist to meet basic human needs, they’re regulated like water and wastewater utilities and can be considered public works.

And so on and so forth.

But let’s return to our original task. Here’s how someone at the agency the gentleman who contacted me puts it:

“We serve as invisible guardians to protect and sustain our water, land, homes, and roads of travel that are essential to quality of life. We are an elite group of warriors who come from five tribes:

  • The Ninjas oversee and protect new construction of community gathering places for learning and clear the way for future buildings.
  • The Gladiators protect our lands and oversee plans for new villages.
  • The Vikings are of two tribes that work together as one protecting our water.
  • Samurais guard our forests from intruders.
  • Spartans ensures our land is clean and rich in nutrients for plantings.

“We choose to fight for a living, and our weapons of choice include maps, trucks, trash cans, and test kits to concur and protect.”

NOW you’re talking! How do YOU define public works? E-mail me your ideas at sjohnston@hanleywood.com.