Seen in Cincinnati: lovingly restored but (thankfully) outdated.
Stephanie Johnston Seen in Cincinnati: lovingly restored but (thankfully) outdated.

A reader once said that at some point, public works just has to say NO. Meaning: people can’t have everything they want when they want it.

He was answering a question in our annual budget outlook survey about how his department was going to do more with less over the coming year—standard operating procedure for public works. He said government in general had raised expectations too high during good times and now, with assets getting older and regulations toughening, is too afraid of the inevitable backlash to cut the fluff and focus on the basics.

Unfortunately, we can have everything we want when we want it. Technology is turning what used to be extraordinary into the ordinary.

Who would have thought even five years ago we could watch TV, send e-mail, surf the Internet, be audibly guided step by step to a destination, etc., etc., etc., from the same device that once just made phone calls?

This year I’ve been to trade shows for construction, solid waste, and snow-and-ice control. Manufacturers are obsessed with giving customers faster, more powerful machines. Why? Are project backlogs so immense that contractors must race from job to job? Will an RFID tag keep someone from stealing a garbage can if (for some inexplicable reason) he has to have it?


Pretty soon we’ll be able to conduct commerce via our phone on airplanes, the last refuge from the madness. Why? You’re probably doing the work of two people. Do you have twice as much leisure time?


Public works departments can and do use technology and equipment to do more with less. But a lot of their work can’t be similarly mechanized. It’s manual, detail-oriented, and physically dangerous.

Snow falls during rush hour. Roads form potholes. When it’s cold enough for long enough, waterlines break. Into every life a little inconvenience must fall. Unfortunately, that’s a reality people are increasingly oblivious to. Stay strong (and safe) as you and your teams deal with this disconnect.

P.S. Many thanks to Sue Magness and Gerald Checco, recycling coordinator and public services director, respectively, for Cincinnati for hosting me in May. They have done more than 300,000 residents will ever realize to make the city beautiful, fun, and clean.