APWA Book Review

Everything You Need to Know to Be a Public Works Director
52 pp * 2004 * APWA * John Ostrowski

Everything You Need to Know to Be a Public Works Director is the first publication in a new series from APWA entitled "From My Perspective." Publications in the "From My Perspective" series are experience-based commentaries on management topics that usually aren't covered in any formal classroom. Written by public works professionals, these books are intended to convey the kind of "insider wisdom" one might expect to pick up from a mentor.

In this publication, Ostrowski offers to the reader a series of brief but thought-provoking compilations of his observations and experiences that can be valuable tools to any public works director. His writing on human behavior is particularly applicable.

From his perspective, Ostrowski shares with readers how to be prepared for a career in public works. If you want to be a public works director, you have to know that the job exists. The author wasn't aware that there was such a thing until he was 27 years old; eight years later he was one. Maybe all that means is that luck is important in any career choice. He was lucky because he worked with some of the best people in the business during those eight years. Therefore, the best advice for someone getting ready to be a public works director is to find some good mentors. That comes after knowing what the job is. That's one of the purposes of this book.

Being a public works director can be one of the most rewarding careers around but there isn't much in writing about what the job entails. One reason for this is that the term public works director doesn't always describe the same job responsibilities in different agencies, and sometimes the job isn't even called public works director. Often the department isn't even called public works.

In real life a public works director in a small town might be fixing a truck one day and making a budget presentation to the city council the next. In a large city, the transportation manager might be in charge of engineering, operations and implementation of a capital improvement program covering streets and maybe even transit. The two jobs are very different in many ways and very similar in some essentials. The first essential similarity is that both jobs and all public works director jobs deal more with the different types of people you meet in the business of public works.

The second essential similarity is that both jobs deal with the management of the technical aspects of making society work. The water has to flow, the sewage has to depart and the streets have to hold together. The laws of physics govern everything we do. Most citizens and elected officials don't understand as much about physics as you do so you have to explain it to them. Explaining technical problems to non-technical decision-makers is a problem as old as the Appian Way. Incidentally, Julius Caesar spent some time as a public works director and it helped him rise to power because as a public works director or aedile, he was able to give the masses what they wanted.

Giving the masses what they want is the third essential similarity. All public works work is done in a political environment. So if you want to get ready for the job of public works director, what should you do? Ostrowski explains how there's more than one path and each person has to find the one that works best for them.

Read this book. Reflect on what has been written and then take action using its guiding principles. It will help you to be a more successful leader. Refer to it when things are not going well or a large problem or a new opportunity looms on your professional horizon.

Share this book. Use the lessons herein to help mentor others in the public works profession. You might even purchase a few copies as gifts for those in other professions. The chief law enforcement official, the local librarian and the organization's chief executive come to mind.

Lastly, keep in mind that for the most part your role as a public works director is to sell ideas, not products. If you create a positive confirming culture in your organization, you'll have the support of the people who work with you for whatever you decide. You'll get some of them right and some of them wrong, but if you've paid attention to what you've read in this book, you should be able to hang around long enough to learn from your mistakes and get more things right than wrong. Your wrong decisions will be forgotten, and your right decisions will win you awards. Or you'll just be comfortable with yourself and know you've done the best you can. Either way, when you finish your career, someone else will step in and take over. Then you can retire and write down all your wonderful advice to the next generation of public works leaders. This book is the idea starter!

For more information on purchasing this book and other American Public Works Association books, please visit the APWA Bookstore online at www.apwa.net/bookstore or call the Member Services Hotline at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 5251.