The image of public works: What have you done recently to improve it in your community?

Richard Ridings, P.E.
APWA President

If you were to poll your community, what would they say about the services provided by the public works (or other infrastructure management) department? Odds are, they might ask you for clarification or simply stare off into the distance. When they did respond, would it simply be more complaints about potholes, snow removal, trash pickup, or traffic congestion?

Too often, the public works department is the invisible department, only getting media coverage or public recognition when something goes wrong. If everything goes right, our services are nearly transparent—as they should be. Historically, public works employees have included a high percentage of introverts, content with providing highly effective services, but shunning public attention. Marketing and public relations are often classified with other topics to be avoided, like public participation, direct contact with elected officials, and the dreaded media. But if we don't tell our story, who will? The fact is, without a positive outflow of public information about your programs, projects and services, the media will dictate when the public works department gets community attention—and it is almost always not the good news.

Look at your peer departments with excellent visibility in the community and you will almost always find a very visible public affairs contact. A recent search on the Internet for "public affairs" and "police" and "City of" returned over 25,000 hits. A similar search substituting fire for police returned 23,400 hits. Finally, substituting public works returned a mere 5,000 hits; many of those led to the general administration web page rather than the public works page. Is it time to consider designating someone to be responsible for coordinating public affairs in your department?

When was the last time that you prepared a press release featuring a success story or outstanding individual performance in your department? If you can't remember the last time, it's probably been too long. When was the last time you invited the local paper's editorial board to meet with your senior staff to discuss what your department is responsible for (and what they are not responsible for) and whom to contact if they, or one of their journalists, have a question. This is an excellent time to review with them the limitations that your agency may have placed on direct contact with the media. Be sure to coordinate these press releases and media contact with the appropriate official in your agency.

When was the last time you suggested that a citizens group be contacted to get the community perspective on your existing level of services or on a proposed program or project? When was the last time that you offered to speak to a local citizen group or service club about the mission of the public works department or next year's work program? When was the last time you conducted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an overlay project? Did you make arrangements yet for your agency's elected board to issue a National Public Works Week Proclamation?

Being an effective advocate for public works is key to the accomplishment of our mission. Citizens and recipients of our public works services need to know the truth about what we do and how much it will cost them if our public works assets are allowed to continually deteriorate (depreciate in value). One effective way to let your customers know what your department is doing and where you need help is to complete and update your asset management (GASB 34) system annually. Then work with your government's communication staff to properly disseminate that information. This is helpful information and the communication efforts will enlighten your fellow department heads as well.

For example, did you know that nationally our number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the U.S. in the last 20 years has increased by 100 percent? And, during that same time frame, we added less than 10 percent of new freeway lanes? It's no wonder we have congestion. Did you know that the cost of congestion in the top 10 cities in the U.S. exceeds $34 billion annually? That is approximately the same as our federally-funded highway bill.

Now is the time to spread the word about the good deeds that are performed every day by public works professionals in your organization. Take the time to reach out and tell your community about what it is that you do for them. If we do our job well, it should be transparent—but it does not need to be invisible.


1. Nearly one-third of America's bridges are rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete-and $80 billion will be needed to eliminate the current backlog and maintain current repair levels. (Source: FHWA)

2. Incineration of MSW, once considered to be a major method of reducing materials sent to landfills, has not increased but continues to hover around 10 percent. (Source: US EPA)

3. In 1972, only 84 million people were served by secondary or advanced wastewater treatment facilities. Today, 99 percent of community wastewater treatment plants, serving 181 million people, use secondary treatment or better. (Source: US EPA)