Using your organization’s diversity as a community outreach tool

Jason E. Cosby, P.E., Assistant Director of Public Works, City of San Antonio, Texas
Lori Houston, Administrative Assistant, City of San Antonio, Texas

The City of San Antonio Public Works Department is comprised of several divisions, each performing a different operation: Building Maintenance, Capital Improvement Programs, Right-of-Way, Street Maintenance, Stormwater Utility (Operations and Engineering), and the Transportation Group (Parking, Traffic Engineering, Traffic Operations). Highly-trained, diverse personnel manage each of the divisions. Regardless of age, education, ethnicity, political stance, and work experience, all divisions are driven by the following mission statement:

“To be committed to providing public services and infrastructure in a quality manner through the use of modern engineering and management practices with a team of people dedicated to professional excellence and customer satisfaction. We strive to accomplish these tasks efficiently, effectively, and with accountability to the community we serve.”

Our diverse work environment is a wonderful representation of the diversity within the great City of San Antonio. The city is made of ten Council Districts. All are comprised of constituents representing different education levels, ethnicity, housing values, income levels, gender, and other variables. This diversity contributes to the concentration of requests for certain public works services. Requests for graffiti cleanup, pothole repairs, and vegetation control vary from district to district. Citizens identify the Public Works Department with the services they use, unaware of the additional services provided by the department.

Thomas G. Wendorf, P.E., Director of the City of San Antonio Public Works Department, and his staff have recognized the need to educate their diverse community on the different divisions and services comprised of the Public Works Department. Wendorf implemented a Citizens Public Works Academy to educate all public works consumers.

The Citizens Public Works Academy is a five-week program. Five two-hour sessions educate citizens on the various functions of the Public Works Department and create a better understanding of the processes for enlisting its services. The program focused on the following businesses: Capital Improvements, Customer Service, Street Maintenance, Stormwater Utility, and the Transportation Group. These programs are highly visible throughout the San Antonio community. To avoid unequal representation, nominations were made by each of the ten council members. Each council member nominated two to three citizens they felt would add value to the program. Twenty-seven citizens participated in the program, all from different age groups, education backgrounds, ethnic groups, income levels, and gender.

Prior to the first session, surveys were distributed to all identified participants. The survey requested the participants to rank the following Public Works Department divisions in order of preference: Capital Improvements, Customer Service, Street Maintenance, Stormwater Utility, and the Transportation Group. The first session helped frame the entire program. Citizens were placed in one of five discussion groups based on their individual rankings. Groups of five or six discussed their topic division and answered their questions: What is the purpose of this Public Works business? What is the perception of the business’s service? And what would you like to learn about this business or service? Each discussion group presented their answers to the entire group. These presentations provided an outline for those businesses presenting in future sessions.

The future sessions were designed by the presenting divisions. Each business is comprised of a diverse group of trained employees, all with their own teaching techniques. Surveys were distributed at the end of each session, requesting feedback from the participants on the session’s value. Copies of the surveys were provided to all presenting divisions, allowing future sessions to develop more productive sessions. Through the first session’s small group discussions and survey feedback, division managers created their own session in a unique way. Businesses hosted panel discussions, small group discussions, facility tours, equipment shows and demonstrations, and one-on-one interaction with Public Works Department staff.

The Citizens Public Works Academy provided numerous benefits to both the City of San Antonio and the citizens. Participants have the contacts and the expertise necessary to implement change, improvements, and increase overall stability in their community. The positive feedback from city council, city management, and program participants has placed a heightened awareness of the need for public works education and its benefits. The City of San Antonio Public Works Department will coordinate two programs a year. The diverse talent within the department served as a great tool. By utilizing its diversity, the department was able to identify and reach out to the diverse citizens representing the communities within San Antonio.

To reach Jason E. Cosby, P.E., call (210) 207-7785 or send e-mail to jcosby@sanantonio.gov; to reach Lori Houston, call (210) 207-7785 or send e-mail to lhouston@sanantonio.gov.