In the other half of my life, I am editor of CONCRETE CONSTRUCTION magazine. In that role, I have to keep in touch with the issues that weigh on the minds of concrete contractors—things like finding and keeping good employees, managing projects to stay on schedule, and struggling to control quality and costs. Oh, yes—and making money.
Public works professionals aren't much different. You, too, deal with personnel, project management, and budgets. And although the onus may not always be on you to turn a profit, you're still expected to run your operation with a tight fist and, sometimes, even to make money. Running a water department that collects user fees, for example, is little different than running any other business, except that your profits go toward funding other city programs instead of into your pocket.
A public works department is very much like a nonprofit association. When I ran a nonprofit, we often had to invest in products and services that held little expectation of a monetary return, but that had an added value in that they benefited the members or the industry as a whole. In public works, many of the services you deliver have an added value that is difficult to define—it's not as simple as the bottom line. The important thing is to recognize both the added value and the real cost of every service. It's all too easy to say, “Sure, we can do this or that, and it will be a good thing for the town.” But you should know what the service will really cost—including staff time and overhead—then look at the value. And don't forget the hidden cost of what I call opportunities foregone: the products and services you can't provide because your resources—money and time—are already used up.
Part of your job is to help your elected leaders set priorities. I found the best way to do that with a nonprofit board of directors was to include a list with my budget proposal that showed the costs, revenues, and added value of both the products and services we were providing the members and those we weren't. Including those other things—the opportunities foregone—allowed the board to make informed decisions about whether we were using our limited resources wisely. Were we giving the members as much added value as possible? Or should we drop some current services in exchange for one of the opportunities foregone?
Accounting for all the added value of the things you do certainly complicates the situation. Dealing with dollars and cents would be much easier. It's almost enough to make a person want to go into the concrete business.
Editor in Chief