An effective public works leader...manages resources

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Director of Public Works (retired)
City of Greeley, Colorado
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has published the brochure entitled "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure is based on a survey of public works officials and those who employ them to determine the most important characteristics of an effective public works leader. These "Baker's Dozen" core competencies help public works professionals recognize and develop leadership talent. Included in this issue is the twelfth in our series of core competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

Jesus said to them, "Give them some food." The disciples replied, "Five loaves and two fish is all we have." Now the men there numbered five thousand.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Have them sit down in groups of about fifty." Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, they set them before the crowd. They all ate and were satisfied. And, when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets. Luke 9:11b - 17

Managing your resources
This account is probably the most extreme example of managing resources. How many of us wish we could solve some of our scarce resource problems by divine intervention? There are some who suggest that the real miracle is that Jesus, by example, got the people to share what they had with them—and to discover that there was enough for everyone.

Management has been described as the process of achieving predetermined objectives through the efforts of other people. Quite appropriately, a manager focuses on goals, results, and such end products as the goods and services to be provided.

Reviewing your methods
Nothing inhibits an organization faster than people who believe that the way they worked yesterday is the best way to work tomorrow. To succeed, not only do your people have to change the way they act, they have to change the way they think about the past. "If you always do what you have always will always get what you have always gotten." A definition of insanity could then be "if you keep doing the same things the same way over and over again, you somehow will get different results." While in the world of sports and acting, practice makes perfect; in the world of public works, this practice could lead to an unanticipated career change. Given limited resources to accomplish increased demands for service greatly impacts a public works manager.

As a public works leader, it is your responsibility to continuously review your methods and procedures to ensure continuous improvement. There are many review methods readily available to you. To name just a few:

  • Benchmarking
  • Reengineering
  • Internal audits of procedures
  • Self-Assessment through APWA

How do you begin?
To begin, I would suggest you utilize the most powerful resource available to you—your employees—to develop or review your current situation:

  • Mission statement
  • Vision statement
  • Values of the organization
  • Goals
  • Strategies
  • Accountability (performance indicators)

As told by the March Hare to Alice in Wonderland, if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. The above-listed items will not only get you where you want to go, but will tell you when you have arrived.

Is this all a manager has to do? Peter Drucker said, "The pertinent question is not how to do things right, but how to find the right things to do and concentrate resources and efforts on them."

How does a manager in a public works agency know what services to provide and how to best allocate limited resources to meet what seems to be the wants and desires of the community? Elected officials typically establish policy and approve budgets to meet the needs of their constituents. The public works manager puts together a plan and budget for consideration by the elected officials. Determining what programs to put in these plans and how much to allocate for each area are becoming more complicated as the range of demands increases and the available funds decrease.

The development of a strategic plan is becoming more and more important to public works leaders and the administration of their departments.

So far, I have identified some important methods that would be of value in managing resources:

  • Sharing of resources
  • Utilizing your employees
  • Reviewing your methods
  • Developing a strategic plan
  • Performance indicators

Sharing of resources
Labor is the predominant public sector resource, but the management of equipment, materials, and space should not be overlooked in the management of resources. Needed equipment, materials, or facilities may lie right at hand and yet be unnoticed. Managers who keep alert to the world around them and who exercise some imagination are often rewarded for their awareness.

Are there other ways to utilize scarce or costly equipment? Is it possible to share certain specialized pieces of equipment, share staff, or cooperate in joint purchasing of supplies or services? An inventory of specialized pieces of equipment within the city organization may be obtained from the Equipment Maintenance Department. A utilization study could be conducted to determine if equipment is being utilized efficiently and effectively. Specialized pieces of equipment may be rented on a short-term lease basis to accomplish seasonal operations or tasks. Adjacent municipalities may join forces to secure expensive equipment. Intergovernmental agreements may be used to provide common services (sweeping, striping, signal maintenance, etc.). Outsourcing of costly services may be a management tool to review.

Utilizing your employees
Your goal as a manager should be to gradually increase the competence and confidence of your people so that you can begin to use less time-consuming management demands—supporting, coaching, and delegating—and still get high-quality, cost effective, and responsive results.

The traditional source of labor for public sector agencies is the full-time employee. However, it may be possible to make better use of existing full-time budgeted positions. Some options could include:

Inside consultant groups. Many public works agencies are likely to have more skills, knowledge, and abilities available to it than most private consulting firms. You and your employees have the institutional knowledge and the incentives to change.

Reducing absenteeism. Absenteeism robs the manager of budgeted productive positions. Absenteeism imposes high costs on an organization. It burdens managers who have to make rearrangements, and delays coworkers who have to depend on the absent worker. Absenteeism may be addressed by eliminating some of the causes and by rewarding excellent attendance (i.e., personal leave days, unused sick leave conversion, wellness programs, reassignment of injured workers, child care, etc.). High absenteeism could be a sign of dissatisfied workers; it certainly develops dissatisfaction in the workers who have to pick up the slack.

Alternative schedules. The traditional work day (8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.) may be the most conventional work arrangement, but it is not the only one possible. Alternative schedules may make more economical use of resources, accommodate employees, and enhance service to the citizens. Alternative schedules come in a variety of ways:

  • Flex time (i.e., core times)
  • Compressed work week (i.e., four 10-hour days)
  • Shift work
  • Alternative work week
  • Teleconferencing (work at home)

Employment alternatives. In lieu of using permanent full-time employees, there may be more alternatives to explore, such as:

  • Part-time employees (less than 40 hours/week)
  • Job sharing (utilizing one person to perform two similar job functions)
  • Temporary staffing
  • Utilizing retired employees
  • Utilizing interns from local universities
  • Contracted labor for short periods of time
  • Volunteers
  • Unpaid workers from the private sector
  • Community service workers

Employee involvement. If you really want to find better, more efficient and cost-effective methods of accomplishing a task in a responsive manner, ask the person who does the work. More often than not, excellent results are obtained when you bring your employees into the picture early. However, to do that, you must gain their trust.

Abraham Lincoln gained the trust and respect of his subordinates, building strong alliances on both personal and professional levels. He wanted to know how his people would respond in any given situation: who would have a tendency to get the job done on his own, or be likely to procrastinate and delay; who could be counted on in an emergency and who couldn't; who were the brighter, more able, more committed people; who shared his strong sense of ethics and values. He also wanted his subordinates to get to know him so that they would know how he would respond in any given situation, what he wanted, demanded, and needed. If they knew what he would do, they could make their own decisions without asking him for direction, thereby avoiding delay and inactivity.

You, as a manager, have to set the objectives (what needs to be done). The employees should be allowed input into setting the goals and the method of achieving those goals. Let them do their job!

Developing a strategic plan
Public works managers deal with an increasing array of issues and demands for services. The delivery of public works services and the planning, construction, operation, and maintenance of public works facilities has become much more complicated. The challenges facing public works managers is as much in knowing what needs to be done as in how to get it done. How does a manager remain focused on the core mission of the organization? Strategic planning is one tool that may be of value to public works managers seeking to meet the demands of their communities in the most effective manner.

A strategic plan is a written document that defines a vision of the organization. It is a method for planning the organization's future to accomplish its mission, vision, values, goals, and strategies. A good reference book for the development of a strategic plan is APWA's Moving Forward: A Public Works Perspective on Strategic Planning. Again, remember the hare's conversation with Alice!

Performance indicators
After all is said and done, you need to develop a series of performance indicators. The strategic plan will set forth your workload and inputs; performance measures will measure the outputs. Both will determine your outcomes. How are we doing? APWA has an excellent publication entitled Performance Measurement in Public Works. Remember, how can you manage if you cannot measure? What is important gets measured. A last word of caution: Be selective on what you measure, how you measure, and what you do with the results.

"Don't work harder—work smarter!"

In closing, I hope I have given you some pointers in managing resources. I'm sure you all do these things, but occasionally we need to be reminded. There are many good publications available through APWA to help you manage. Remember, you are given only so much in resources; what you do with those limited resources and how effective you are in providing services will distinguish you from a great number of managers in our profession.

"We, the few, are asked to do so much more with less until we reach a point that we can now do everything with nothing."

Bill Sterling, P.E., a past APWA Top Ten recipient, can be reached at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Possesses Integrity
  • Is Accountable
  • Is Decisive
  • Is Public Service Oriented
  • Empowers Others
  • Is Deliberate
  • Is a Communicator
  • Shows Respect for Others
  • Is Technically Knowledgeable
  • Manages Resources
  • Is Resilient
  • Delegates
  • Maintains Balance