Stephanie Johnston, Editor in Chief
Stephanie Johnston, Editor in Chief

As you well know, there's often a big difference between what people think they're entitled to and what's appropriate—or even possible—for your department to provide.

Examples of this disconnect abounded at the American Public Works Association's annual meeting in September. My personal favorites: a woman who sat in the outfall ditch running through her backyard because she wanted the city to lay pipe instead of “just” dredging, and the employee who protested a dress code that prohibits him from wearing his “Border Control” cap around Hispanic coworkers.

Such stories are symptoms of a larger societal disease that has profound ramifications for service organizations like public works.

Even though per-capita gross domestic product has tripled over the past 50 years, we're the unhappiest we've ever been. We spend billions each year to rent storage space for our possessions, yet despite owning all these material riches we feel anxious and unsatisfied.

Our grandparents considered disease-free drinking water, paved streets, and sewers that carried their excrement away to be luxuries; today we take for granted the way these basic human needs are met by the dedicated, but faceless, professionals in our public works departments. And when these services are suddenly disrupted, for whatever reason, we howl about how inconvenienced we are.

So how do you deal with being stuck between the rock of unrealistic expectations and the hard place of finite amounts of time and money? I don't have a comprehensive solution, but here are two ideas that might help.

Don't let it get you down. You can't please all of the people all of the time. There are times when doing what must be done will please nobody, and your best defense is a good offense: explaining (over and over and over) what you're doing and why in language the average person can understand. Maintaining communities for the common good sometimes requires making or implementing unpopular decisions. Anyone who can't reconcile themselves to this reality will be miserable in public works.

Instill pride in the job of supporting the community's infrastructure. Your constituents look to you during emergencies, but it's what you do between crises that counts even more. Your department's long-range vision and how it operates day in and day out—how employees answer the phone, handle rude or abusive constituents, interact with residents on the street—is what makes your community a better place to live. Though they're invisible to residents, your employees maintain our communities' life support systems.

While not all public works departments have formal, written mission statements, I suspect there are quite a number of good ones out there. If you have one, please share it with us at We'd love to learn from you.