Anything worth doing...

Ann Daniels
Director of Technical Services
APWA Kansas City Office

Here's a question for you: What takes 3,285 days to complete, impacts 4,295,320 people, covers up to 518 management practices, builds great teams, ensures policies, procedures, and practices are well documented and easy to find, and provides a source for great celebration?

Bet you thought the answer was something really noble like finding a cure for the common cold or locating Waldo in a sea of faces. Good guesses, but wrong.

The answer is: Earning Accreditation for 25 agencies throughout the United States and Canada between 1996 and July 2005. Quite a feat.

In case you've been living under a rock and don't know what the APWA Accreditation program is, let me explain. The purpose of Accreditation is to promote and recognize excellence in the operations and management of a public works agency. It is a commitment to continuous improvement in the delivery of public works operations and services.

Accreditation is a voluntary program which builds upon the initial Self Assessment process. It demonstrates that an agency is well managed, proactive, reviews its management practices against the best management practices developed by public works professionals, and is providing cost-effective and comprehensive services to the citizens of their jurisdiction.

After these nine years, we have reached a major milestone in the program. Twenty-five agencies have now completed the Self Assessment process and moved on to become fully accredited agencies. Quite a record for a new program of such magnitude.

Who are these agencies? The first two accredited were the City of Greeley, CO and the Village of Schaumburg, IL. Blazing a trail for those to come, these two agencies helped to train evaluators who had never reviewed practices before, worked out the bugs in the evaluation process, and were probably held to much higher standards than required of the program. Nevertheless, they persevered and have set the bar high for those who have followed them. Not only has Greeley been accredited, but they have been reaccredited twice! Schaumburg will have their second reaccreditation early next year.

The agencies vary in size from a population of 17,435 in Golden, CO to a population of 1,464,653 in Clark County, NV. The remaining 23 agencies include:

  • Six agencies with a population below 50,000
  • Twelve agencies with a population between 50,000 and 150,000
  • Four agencies with a population between 150,000 and 200,000
  • One agency with a population between 200,000 and 1,000,000

What have they gained? Each agency would tell you something different, in all likelihood. However, each would also share the similarities. One of those is the improved understanding and appreciation for what each division and employee brings to the agency.

Terry Burks, Accreditation Manager for Coconino County, AZ says, "In my twenty-four years of public works service, I've never found anything that builds better and stronger teams than going through the APWA Accreditation process together." Coconino County was the first county to be accredited and has also been reaccredited.

Vince Auriemma, Deputy Public Works Director for the smallest agency accredited to date, the City of Golden, CO, shares this insight: "The Self Assessment/Accreditation process has proven beneficial in many ways. Staff felt they had a say in how the Department was functioning and where it was heading and this did wonders for morale. The process challenged staff to pursue 'continuous improvement' in everything that it does. Achieving accredited status instilled a sense of pride in department employees, city management, and the city council."

In a similar vein, Bill Sterling, retired Public Works Director of Greeley, CO, tells us, "This program has been the catalyst to improve customer service, develop pride in what we do, and provide more freedom to employees to carry out their job responsibilities."

Rene Cardinaux, recently retired Public Works Director for Berkeley, CA, shares a very tangible result from Accreditation. "The Self Assessment/Accreditation process has more than paid for itself with a fifty percent reduction in public infrastructure liability claims since we achieved the initial Accreditation in December 2000. During these difficult budget times, a savings of nearly one million dollars over the last three years is a significant one. The Bay Cities Joint Powers Insurance Authority is now including Accreditation in its list of programs for reducing insurance costs." The savings were realized after a comprehensive sidewalk inspection and repair program was instituted which cut the number of successful claims by half.

"In these tight economic times, we are using Self Assessment/Accreditation to enhance performance, increase productivity, clarify budget needs, strengthen employee morale and increase professionalism," states H. Reed Fowler, Jr., Director of Public Works for Newport News, Virginia, accredited in April, 2003. "I believe that our success with Accreditation will further instill pride in our organization and improved service delivery to the community for years to come."

Another benefit is the development of standard operating practices, policies and procedures where none may have previously existed. John Gonzales, Deputy Public Works Director of Port St. Lucie, FL, shares their experience as follows: "Our department was founded in 1988. We used the first and second editions of the Public Works Management Practices Manual to develop our standard operating procedures and directives that became the backbone of our department. We believe that this is a unique use of the practices but a good one. We are very proud to be the first agency in Florida and the eighth to be accredited in North America."

Pam Maloney, Accreditation Project Manager and Utilities Planning Manager for Bellevue, WA, says, "Reviewing all aspects of our business lines gave me a much deeper appreciation for the breadth of services we provide, how well we provide them, and how dedicated our staff are to providing excellent service. What surprised me most were how many excellent practices we had which weren't documented at all prior to our self assessment and improvement projects."

Not only are public works agencies realizing the benefits of Accreditation but their bosses are seeing the value, also. Steve Sarkozy, City Manager of Bellevue, WA, states, "Accreditation is one way we can demonstrate to our community and elected officials that the City of Bellevue is a high-performance organization. I believe that Accreditation highlights a department's professionalism and operational readiness, and demonstrates our high standards of customer service."

As the number of accredited agencies continues to grow, the successes realized by each one leads them to share their positive experiences with others seeking to make the decision whether to undertake Self Assessment and Accreditation. With 28 additional agencies having signed contracts stating their intent to become accredited, the list continues to grow.

In the beginning years, it may have appeared that Accreditation was much too time-consuming and almost daunting in the amount of work that was required. As more agencies have completed the process, they have begun sharing their expertise freely with those contemplating participation in the program. With willing mentors, a growing network of peers, and a strong belief in the value of the program, any agency, of any size, can expect to benefit and grow from assessing their own internal processes.

Most agencies have found they are already "doing" between 75 and 80 percent of the required practices. This means there is a good foundation already laid which will only be strengthened by ensuring that formal documentation is in place to assist those who join the department in coming years. The remaining 20 to 25 percent of the practices will bring about the growth that ensures the agency is really striving to be the best managed and operated agency it can be. The emphasis is on making the agency the best it can be—not better than everyone else. The reward is really reflex: the more you put into the program, the more you benefit from it for years to come.

If this article makes the Accreditation program seem almost too good to be true, don't take my word for it. Contact any or all of the 25 accredited agencies and ask for their frank observations of the effort, time and resources involved, as well as the benefits they have realized. You can find the list of accredited agencies, as well as each agency that has a signed contract, and their contact information on the website at www.apwa.net/About/Accreditation.

Webster's defines success as "The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted." This leads me to believe success has come to the first 25 accredited agencies because they desired to improve, carefully planned the manner in which they should proceed to shape their destiny, and then weren't so overwhelmed with the perceived complexity of the program but stepped out to attempt it with a positive attitude. After all, the old axiom says, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." APWA congratulates the first 25 accredited agencies for doing things very well.

Ann Daniels can be reached at (816) 595-5223 or adaniels@apwa.net.