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:
Merging two organizations administratively is a complex process. Whenever there are internal issues, along with the “marriage” of two work cultures, there will be challenges. For Trenton, a competitiveness assessment performed by a third-party mediator, combined with the integration, facilitated success.
Step 1: Identify a manager/leader. Define a mission. Competitiveness assessments are valuable in many situations. Occasionally, organizations identify a problem, acknowledge they do not have the resources to address it, and seek guidance. A mediator has an objective view and the ability to be sensitive to labor concerns.
Trenton's assessment was conducted during its integration to foster positive change from the combining of the two utilities. The first step was appointing a utility manager/leader and defining a mission. Knowing where the organization wanted to be in 10 years was critical in developing initiatives that support that goal.
From day one, all stakeholders—management, senior city officials, labor—were present, helping earn the employees' trust and making them a partner. Also, employees can help identify areas where management has not yet championed change. Trenton found that it was facing challenges related to management/employee unity. With the right leadership and inclusion of labor in all discussions, operations can improve, with the entire team supporting the vision.
Step 2: Start the integration effort. Trenton started the administrative integration of its water and sewer utilities looking into the future and understanding that it would take time. The manager/leader made an effort to be seen, becoming a partner and learning the operations.
For Trenton, changes were implemented from the start. For example, top water management sought methods for delegating tasks to individuals leading teams in the field and at the water filtration plant, as second-tier management was limited in its ability to make decisions and manage employees. The active role of the manager/leader helped the solution; management delegation was fostered and encouraged. The manager/leader used a variety of means to train, demonstrate, and describe the methods for managing staff to the second-tier managers, to establish the methods of delegation top water management were looking for, and to provide responsibilities second-tier managers appreciated.
Step 3: Interview all stakeholders. To ensure everyone had a voice, the assessment of Trenton's integrated utility included interviews with a majority of employees. Meetings were facilitated by the third-party mediator, allowing labor to voice their thoughts without fear of negative reactions. A pattern of opportunities for changes was revealed. These opportunities were then aligned with the defined mission and goals, providing suggestions for short- and long-term changes.
Step 4: Hold audit reviews. As a check on progress, the mediator led a series of sessions with select individuals from the water and sewer divisions, from mid-management to labor. This provided another opportunity for discussion without senior management being present. Participants appreciated being given a voice in their future.
Step 5: Schedule ongoing management meetings. Without including names, the meeting outcomes were reported in broad terms to senior management during monthly meetings, which involved reporting project status, raising possible initiatives, reporting the findings that needed short- or long-term solutions, or discussing issues outside of the utility's control.
The mediator treated these meetings as training/learning sessions for the city/ utility. Often, topics of discussion can be used as a point of reference as issues needing resolution are identified. These meetings allow an exchange of ideas and “what if” scenarios. Gauging the ability to implement solutions and identifying an action strategy, allow thought to become action and sound planning.
Step 6: Implement initiatives. Trenton has started implementing changes developed throughout the assessment and initial meetings, including:
Change takes time, and Trenton will be able to evaluate the success of its initiatives more each year. By strategically implementing changes, such as the purchase of technology or development of need-based training, the organization will continue to move in a positive direction. Performance measurement and open communication will lead Trenton toward optimal effectiveness.
“The utility has improved by embracing some of the efficiency initiatives of a private operation, administratively integrating its departments and resolving internal issues, while remaining public,” said Jackson. “Privatizing can be a sound decision for some organizations, but it would not have been the ideal alternative for Trenton.”
Going forward, the city is proceeding with implementation of three task initiatives, including:
— Ponella is assistant director of public works for Trenton, N.J., and Gilmore is project manager with CDM, Edison, N.J.