With the push to be competitive, public works managers are finding themselves debating whether privatization is the way to efficiency and accountability—while responding to growing service demands. Common to just about every utility manager is the desire to face these challenges strategically. Internal evaluations—department by department, section by section—can provide needed direction. Often, the solution is adapting to a new way of thinking: integration.
Water and wastewater services are no longer completely independent. By addressing them together, utilities are operating efficiently and working toward a unified goal of top-notch service. As a result, more cities are considering integrating their departments into a singular powerhouse. Such was the case for the Trenton, N.J., Department of Public Works, which serves 85,400 people.
Until recently, Trenton's sewer and water utilities operated separately. While they were facing similar challenges—goals for customer service and efficiency—they were experiencing varying success. With a team-oriented environment, cross-trained employees, and sound communication between management and labor, Trenton's sewer utility reported efficient and effective operations. The water utility's experienced pool of employees and operators contributed positively to service, but it was facing challenges, such as poor communication between management and labor; second-tier management could benefit from increased delegation authority; training in discipline procedures needed revisiting; and ways existed to achieve positive improvements in treatment and distribution systems.
“The unions asked for change, and we were aware of these challenges and were prepared to provide support,” said Eric E. Jackson, Trenton's director of public works. “Integration became a way to capitalize on the benefits of operating as one unit. Simultaneously, this was an opportunity to evaluate both entities to determine best practices and identify improvement areas.”
The decision to integrate the two departments administratively, not financially, provides the possibility for several benefits, including: