Public Works Management: 'Old School' approach doesn't cut it anymore!
(from Maine Townsman, March 1996)
By Michael L. Starn, Editor

Public works departments in Maine municipalities are being transformed. Slowly, but surely!

A new breed of public works directors is infusing new ideas into the way that Maine municipalities provide their public works services. The new approach focuses on hiring and maintaining a skilled and trained workforce, on giving employees greater responsibility and authority, on maximizing the use of computer technology, and on costing out services and being competitive with the private sector in the provision of those services.

The "old school" philosophy of public works management embodies several counter-productive attitudes, according to Bill Shane, Yarmouth's public works director, and Bob Malley, Cape Elizabeth's public works director. Malley is the current president of the Maine Chapter of APWA and Shane is the immediate past president. Their views on public works management in Maine are the centerpiece of this article.

Shane and Malley say that the "old school" of public works management is hierarchial by nature concentrating decision making authority in a single individual or group of individuals at the top: "There is no right way or wrong way, there is only MY way." Communications with the public is seen as one way: "We'll plow your street when we get to it. And, the aptitude of the public works employees is denigrated: "What you have from the neck up is of no value to me". Malley and Shane share the view that professionalism in municipal public works, if not its survival, depends on the eradication of this type of management philosophy and replacing it with one that values the skills and training of employees, emphasizes customer service, and improves productivity by maximizing human and other available resources.

HAVING A SKILLED WORKFORCE

A number of stereotypes must be overcome to improve the image of the public works employee. 'Three guys leaning on a shovel'-uneducated and unskilled-unfortunately, is often the image that comes to mind when people are ask to describe the typical public works employee. This negative perception of the municipal public works employee is no longer justified, if it ever was.

Over the past 10 years, greatly improved training opportunities for public works personnel, scarce municipal resources forcing public works departments to 'do more with less', and an increased understanding and respect for the difficult job that public works departments do in this state have enhanced the professionalism of Maine's public works employees.

"We're trying to make employment in the public works profession more attractive," says Yarmouth's Shane. "We're looking for educated, higher skilled employees."

He adds, "If you want to keep employees with talent, then you've got to challenge them." One way to challenge them is to give employees more responsibility. Another way is to provide training opportunities for them.

A major change in the training of public works employees came in the mid-1980 when the federal government began to fund the Rural Technical Assistance Program. It was through this federal program in 1986 that Maine started what is now called the Maine Local Roads Center.

Peter Coughlan is the director of the Maine Local Roads Center, which is housed within the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT). Coughlan manages a $220,000 program funded half by the federal government and half through the MDOT. Approximately three-quarters of the Center's resources are committed to training municipal public works employees in their road-related responsibilities.

The Center offers training in such areas as drainage, work zone traffic control, paving contracts, roadway fundamentals, snow & ice removal, tort liability, road surface management, basic surveying, and municipal equipment management.

Over the past couple of years, between 1500 and 1600 persons have received training through the Center's programs.

"The greatest benefit (of the program)," says Coughlan, "is the increased awareness of new technologies, new products and new methods of road maintenance and construction."

Coughlan points out that through the Center, public works employees in this state have a vast amount of resources available to them, considerably more than 10 years ago, if only they ask.

One of the side benefits of the increased training opportunities for public works employees has been the ability to interact and communicate with colleagues from other municipalities. "Communications (with other public works directors) is something that's new," says Cape Elizabeth's Malley. "In the old days, you might talk with your neighboring town's public works director, but you would seldom think about communicating on a problem with the public works director three towns over."

EMPOWERING EMPLOYEES

"Public works employees should not be working for you, they should be working with you," say Malley and Shane.

"I want people who can think," says Shane. "If I hire an equipment operator and he leaves here after five years to take a public works director position in another community, then we've done ourjob. If he moves to another equipment operator position, then we haven't."

The City of Portland reorganized its public works department about two years ago employing the concepts of employee empowerment and working in teams.

For public works purposes, the city is subdivided into five districts, replicating the five city council districts. Each district has been assigned a five person public works crew to work solely within its geographic boundaries. One of the five is the dis-trict leader.

District employees have been cross-trained in a variety of job func-tions. Within months of the reorganization, the district crews were performing over 20 job functions previously handled by six separate divisions within the department.

This was the first year that winter maintenance was performed under the districting program. "It's incredible how well it has worked," says Mary Butler, public relations coordinator for the city's public works department.

She says that the process works better because the district leaders are personally responsible for seeing that the streets are clean and the salt and sand have been properly applied. A key element to the success of the program is that the public works crews get to know the people in their assigned district. This relationship makes them more responsive to the needs of the neighborhood, says Butler.

Shane and Malley say that giving employees added responsibility and decision making authority maximizes He use of limited resources. Shane recently eliminated the public works superintendent's position, replacing it with an engineering technican and working foreman. "You've got to have working foremen," says Malley. "We all have to do what it takes to get the job done."

FOCUSING ON CUSTOMER SERVICE

Cape Elizabeth's Malley spends a great deal of time on the phone and problem solving. He thinks of it as customer service.

"I'm surprised at how much people appreciate your personal involvement," he says. "It helps to build up the goodwill of the department."

Malley has done several things to improve customer service in Cape Elizabeth's public works department.

Foremost, he has emphasized to his public works staff to: importance of good customer service.

One thing they've done in Cape Elizabeth is build administrative offices at the public works garage. Where the public enters, it now looks like an office, instead of a garage. Also, the public works department has someone assigned to the telephone at all times.

"We've also added voice mail," says Malley. It's left on during the weekend and messages are checked during off-hours and problems or complaints are immediately dealt with. "We are trying to be more acces-sible to people," says Malley.

Improving customer service in public works gets back to that image problem. "Sometimes we're our own worst enemy," says Shane.

Shane recalls a time when his department received several complaints about municipal public works vehicles always being parked near a local coffee shop. Actually, they were state (MDOT) vehicles, but they were orange and so were Yarmouth's, so people didn't recognize the difference. "We painted all our vehicles green and the phone calls stopped," said Shane.

At last year's MMA convention William O'Brien, a management consultant, who has instructed a number of customer service workshops for MMA, spoke at a session sponsored by the Maine Chapter of APWA. At that session, O'Brien gave some advice that Malley thought made a lot of sense and has since urged his public works staff to follow. The advice was "don't talk down to citizens." Even if you don't mean to talk down, your situation may give the false impression that you are talking down to someone. Truck drivers and heavy equipment operators are often caught in their vehicles when confronted by a citizen with a question or problem. O'Brien advises the operator to get out of the vehicle, get down on the ground next to the person, get to eye level, and then begin the conversation.

COST JUSTIFYING YOUR DEPARTMENT

"We have a responsibility to educate citizens, councils or boards of selectmen about what we do and how much it costs," says Malley. "Unfortunately, we end up having to spend a lot of time justifying our jobs."

But that's just a fact of life in today's public works departments. The bottom line for most municipalities is that if the work can be done cheaper or better in the private sector, then that's who will do it.

"We have to be productive year-round," says Malley. "The mentality that we're here just to plow snow in the winter doesn't work anymore."

Both Malley and Shane says that public works employees must work smarter, that public works departments must do what they do best and allow the private sector to fill in the gaps.

Shane says his public works crew used to haul winter sand from the gravel pit with municipal trucks that had a six to seven yard capacity. That, he said, made no sense when the contractor could deliver it in 12-18 yard trucks faster and cheaper and with no wear-and-tear on the municipal trucks.

Higher productivity is not only a goal, it's a necessity. "When I was hired," says Shane, "then town manager Os Bonsey told me that the status quo was unacceptable."

Shane says that in 1986 the town council seriously considered the option of eliminating the municipal public works department entirely.

USING TECHNOLOGY EFFECTIVELY

Without computers, public works directors would have little time to do more than comply with all the federal and state regulations that apply to their departments. Regulations, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, OSHA, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the recent Alcohol & Drug Testing requirements, have significantly increased the administrative burden on municipal public works departments. Computers have directly and indirectly eased that burden.

Computers have been a tremendous boost to recordkeeping, a critical function of a well-run public works department. Complying with regulations, storing records of main-tenance, repair and construction of roads, having spreadsheets to help with budget preparation are all examples of how computer technology has made a difference in public works management. "The budget process used to take two months," says Malley. "Now, I can get it done in a couple of weeks."

Other types of computer-based technology are also having a positive impact on the ability of public works departments to get the job done. Computerized mapping, or Geographic Information Systems (GIS), enables a community to manage municipal services, such as public works, planning, zoning, assessing and public safety, in a more integrated way.

In Yarmouth, an information system called GPS (Global Positioning Systems) provides pinpoint accuracy in determining precise measurement of roads and the location of underground utilities.

A growing number of communities are equipping snowplow trucks with ground speed controllers. These computer-assisted devices, mounted inside the cab, automatically determine the mixing and amount of salt/sand required at various speed intervals.

With computerized road surface management and equipment maintenance systems, public works directors have also been more prepared to go to councils or town meeting with solid information about what is needed in road or equipment maintenance, repair or replacement, and how much it will cost.

CONCLUSION

Public works, perhaps more than any other municipal department, must contend with the "we pay your salary" mentality of the public. For that reason, public works employees can expect to be held to a higher level of accountability and constantly be faced with justifying their existence.

Public works directors must work to continually improve their employees' ability to be productive. Public works departments in Maine are being asked to be more productive with less money and less people.

"We have a lot of baggage to shed," says Shane. "Public works employees are sometimes looked at as second class citizens."

Portland's Mary Butler agrees. She says that public works employees are often overlooked and taken for granted. "In the middle of a snow-storm, people go to sleep, and when they wake up they expect the roads to be plowed without ever considering what went into making them that way."

"I think we're appreciated," says Malley, "but the demands and expectations are high."

And, they all agree that in today's political and economic environment, the "old school" of public works management just doesn't cut it!