Editor's note: William D. Palmer Jr., a well-known figure in commercial construction and former PUBLIC WORKS chief editor, returns to Hanley Wood Business Media as editorial director of the company's Commercial Construction Group and editor in chief of our sister magazine CONCRETE CONSTRUCITON. We asked Bill to discuss his plans to guide us in serving you.
PW: You oversaw PUBLIC WORKS as editor in chief from 2003 to 2006. A lot has happened in the five years since then. How has the public works manager's role changed? For example, have PUBLIC WORKS readers been invited to take their rightful place at the leadership table, or do communities continue to undervalue their contributions?
WP: Unfortunately, I don't see a big improvement in community perception. One recent exception is Denver, where Public Works Director Guillermo “Bill” Vidal was appointed interim mayor following the election of then-mayor John Hickenlooper to the governor's office and has been doing outstanding work. (For more information about Vidal, see our January 2008 issue, “Revolutionary writer,” page 96.)
That sort of thing needs to happen more often to change attitudes about what a public works director is. And some of the onus for making this happen lies with directors themselves, to get out there and take on a share of the political responsibility and not rely on purely technical logic.
As we all know, the decisions a city council or other governing body makes aren't always based on logic.
PW: Other than the never-ending struggle for funding, what are the greatest challenges public works managers will face over the next five years?
WP: A huge challenge is society's increasing reliance on technology and the attitude that its adoption is easy. Residents have incredible technology in their pockets with iPhones and the like, and expect their community to be as simple to manage as SimCity. They will expect instant communication with public works departments and nearly instantaneous response.
Another big challenge is the perception that government employees have cushy jobs with lavish pensions. We need to make the public aware that this isn't typically the case, and that residents should want their government to recruit and retain the best people.
PW: How will PUBLIC WORKS help readers address those challenges?
WP: On the technical side, PUBLIC WORKS will continue to educate readers on the newest innovations both in the printed pages of the magazine and by providing online educational opportunities. We realize that our readers usually have limited travel budgets, so we'll be developing educational Webinars in conjunction with the American Public Works Association.
To straighten out the perception regarding compensation, we're promoting our recent salary and benefits survey with the hope that the general media will find the results interesting enough to cover in-depth. (For more information on this year's salary survey, see page 48 of the March issue.)
PW: After experiencing the recession through the eyes of the concrete industry, what insights do you have for managers involved in many of the same types of construction projects?
WP: Get efficient, get smart, get lean, and hold on. I've been working in the construction industry for almost 30 years, and both the good and bad times always come back. It hurts to contract, but it makes everything better when the good times return. Don't let a recession go to waste — it's a great excuse to get rid of programs, practices, and people that are less than essential.