Management leadership is key to the success of an environmental management system

Julia Anastasio, Esq.
Senior Manager of Government Affairs
APWA Washington Office

APWA, through a cooperative agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water, has an ongoing project to promote environmental management systems (EMS) to public agencies as a tool to improve performance and efficiency. A number of public works agencies, including the City of Charlottesville, VA Department of Parks and Recreation, the City of Kansas City, MO Solid Waste Division, and the City of Eugene, OR Wastewater Division, have successfully adopted EMSs for their operations and are seeing the benefits of implementation. (Environmental Management Systems - A Guide from the American Public Works Association, 2006). APWA is actively working with US EPA and the International City County Management Association (ICMA) to provide municipal governments with information on EMSs and to encourage other public agencies to consider EMSs as a tool for use in their departments or organizations. As part of this project, APWA has sponsored a national EMS webcast, regional EMS workshops, and a media campaign.

This article is another means for APWA to further educate APWA members on EMSs. An EMS is a set of tools that can be implemented by a local government agency in many different ways, depending on their needs or activities. An EMS successfully integrates environmental considerations into everyday business operations and provides many benefits to the organization successfully adopting one. Local governments with experience adopting an EMS describe four keys to success:

  • Top management commitment and support;
  • Organizations that build on existing organizational processes or procedures are more successful than those that start from scratch;
  • The core team is pivotal to the success of the EMS program; and
  • Employee awareness, understanding and involvement in the EMS across the entire organization is recognized as an organizational priority.

(Global Environment and Technology Foundation, An Environmental Management System Troubleshooters' Guide for Local Governments, pages 10-11, October 2002).

The primary focus of this article will be on the first key to success—top management commitment and support—so that public works department managers understand how essential their role in EMS implementation is. First, the article will define an EMS and its essential components and then it will highlight some of the benefits of EMS adoption. Second, the article will discuss the vital role management plays in a successful EMS initiative. Experience has shown that public organizations attempting to implement an EMS without a champion or leader in top management are typically unsuccessful. Third, the article will conclude with information on how interested APWA members can find more information on APWA's EMS project and view a calendar of upcoming EMS training and outreach events.

Public works managers are faced with a wide variety of challenges and legal requirements every day. Public works professionals are responsible for the efficient and effective management of community departments and/or facilities; for the health and safety of the community's citizens; and for the protection of the environment in which they all live. They also face increasingly strong pressure to meet changing federal and state regulations. As a result, many local agencies are turning to an environmental management system as an efficient and effective tool to help them satisfy all of these competing goals. For managers responsible for the efficient and effective operation of public works agencies and/or departments, an EMS provides a comprehensive and flexible tool to aid an organization or facility in meeting its environmental stewardship responsibilities and goals. As organizational leaders, managers must demonstrate commitment and support to the development and the implementation of an EMS to its employees in order for such an initiative to be successful. Without a leader at the top who acts as a cheerleader for agency-wide adoption of an EMS, the initiative will likely fail.

An EMS is a set of tools integrating environmental considerations into everyday business operations throughout all aspects of a business or agency. EMSs are proven tools that can help public works managers effectively and efficiently fulfill their stewardship obligations to the communities they serve. Moreover, an EMS is a dynamic system that can be tailored to meet the needs of any organization because it is flexible, practical and easily adapted to different situations. EMSs are also fully compatible with other management systems or tools and can be used as a platform for these related programs. Local agencies implementing EMSs are seeing real results far beyond just improved environmental stewardship. With its foundation based upon an agency's core values and mission, a properly designed EMS enables managers to analyze, control and reduce the environmental impact of its activities, products and services while simultaneously leading to greater efficiency and control. An EMS can also help to improve an agency's regulatory compliance and pollution prevention efforts, and build greater confidence with the local community.

EMS adoption and implementation leads to the institutionalization of environmental stewardship as part of the day-to-day activities throughout an organization. EMSs provide organizations with a structured system for managing environmental and regulatory responsibilities to improve overall environmental performance and stewardship, including areas not typically subject to regulation such as resource and energy conservation and green procurement practices. EMSs also facilitate the integration of the full scope of environmental considerations into the mission of an organization and improve environmental performance by establishing a continual process of checking to ensure that these goals are set and being met. (EPA Position Statement on EMS, www.epa.gov/ems/position/position.htm). According to Peter Ruffier, Wastewater Division Director, Eugene, OR:

We searched for viable solutions to overcome several environmental challenges confronting us. For example, our permit to discharge treated wastewater to the Willamette River was up for renewal, the spring chinook salmon in the river were listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and our City Council passed a resolution to promote sustainability of city operations. We were also exploring approaches to better organize the strategic management of our operations and be more competitive in providing wastewater services. We chose the EMS to improve performance and efficiency, as well as to confront the challenges we faced.

(Environmental Management Systems - A Guide from the American Public Works Association, 2006).

An EMS is made up of a series of steps that take an organization through the process of analyzing, managing and reducing the environmental impacts of its activities, products and services. These steps have been successfully used in the private sector for many years and are now being adopted by more and more public agencies, including local governments. The basic framework for an EMS is based on four simple steps, "Plan-Do-Check-Act." Some of the elements of an EMS plan include:

  • Understanding how an organization's operations and activities impact the environment;
  • Evaluating the risks posed by environmental issues;
  • Defining an environmental policy that guides the organization's approach and commitment to environmental management;
  • Establishing and maintaining specific procedures to ensure that work activities minimize or eliminate a negative impact on the environment;
  • Communicating responsibilities and work instructions throughout the organization and training employees to effectively carry out their obligations;
  • Monitoring and measuring performance against established standards and indicators;
  • Communicating with people inside and outside the organization about the organization's progress; and
  • Continuing to revise and improve the system based on the monitoring of results.

(Global Environment and Technology Foundation, An Environmental Management System Troubleshooters' Guide for Local Governments, page 5, October 2002).

Many public works departments—for example, motor pools, construction and maintenance operations, municipal waste landfills, and water and wastewater treatment facilitie—shave predictable types of aspects of environmental impacts that can be significantly improved through the implementation of an EMS. Local governments that have adopted an EMS plan indicate that the benefits of EMS implementation include:

  • Better operational control in areas of the operation that directly impact the environment;
  • Better understanding of the root causes of compliance problems;
  • Operational efficiencies and cost savings;
  • Improved communications within an organization and with outside stakeholders;
  • Better relationship with regulators and the community;
  • Improved planning, staffing and operational processes;
  • Institutionalization of environmental roles and responsibilities into job descriptions and work instructions; and
  • Improved products and services.

Adoption of an EMS also provides the opportunity for local agencies to play a leadership role in guiding their community in environmental stewardship.

Managers who have adopted an EMS highlight that their management skills improved as a result of an increased understanding of the organization, its environmental issues, and its operations and personnel issues. An EMS provides a regular and consistent method for identifying the root causes of compliance problems and allows managers to move away from reactive quick fixes to violations towards more proactive, long-term fixes to prevent future noncompliance. Finally, adoption of an EMS reveals to managers significant opportunities for improving efficiency, worker health and safety concerns, employee morale and reduced costs. (Global Environment and Technology Foundation, An Environmental Management System Troubleshooters' Guide for Local Governments, page 6, October 2002).

Senior management commitment and direct support of EMS development and implementation is a key, if not the key, component to the successful adoption of an EMS for public agencies. Managers must understand and actively take on their leadership roles. A manager attempting to engage employees in the development of an EMS must establish a culture of environmental stewardship to foster commitment to the initiative throughout the organization; keep the concept of "continual improvement" as a central focus of the initiative; frequently monitor and measure progress; and communicate results to employees to keep them engaged and to demonstrate organizational and leadership commitment to the effort. It is critical that EMS commitment and support come from all levels of leadership—from the public works department's top management to local leadership like the city council or mayor. (EPA, Achieving Environmental Excellence: An EMS Handbook for Wastewater Utilities, August 2004). Experience has shown that public organizations that attempt to implement an EMS without top management support are typically unsuccessful (Id.).

Typically employees are skeptical of new initiatives and reluctant to fully embrace them until they see how leadership responds. If management is visibly involved, employees will see that the initiative is a high priority and deserves employee attention. A manager can participate by providing input and approving the environmental policy statement of the facility; appoint an EMS Management Representative that is engaged and has top management support; approve EMS plans and programs; track EMS performance; show up at team meetings and presentations; and communicate support consistently across organization or facility. (EPA, Achieving Environmental Excellence: An EMS Handbook for Wastewater Utilities, page 27, August 2004). Managers can also overcome this natural reluctance by involving employees directly in the EMS process, including the development of procedures and work instructions which incorporate the EMS framework so that they are willing to accept the organizational changes which are inherent in EMS implementation. Regular communication about the benefits, progress and successes of EMS implementation is another important factor in building and maintaining agency-wide motivation and commitment. Because innovative ideas and approaches may come from frontline employees, managers should make every effort to make it clear to frontline employees that their comments and suggestions on EMS implementation are welcomed by top management. (EPA, Achieving Environmental Excellence: An EMS Handbook for Wastewater Utilities, page 102, August 2004).

Management visibility, commitment and involvement at all stages of EMS development and implementation are the key to successful agency-wide implementation of an EMS. (EPA, Achieving Environmental Excellence: An EMS Handbook for Wastewater Utilities, August 2004). As the leader in your organization, it is your job to develop agency-wide enthusiasm and commitment to implementing an EMS.

APWA is committed to promoting EMSs to public works agencies as a tool to improve performance and efficiency. The association is actively working with US EPA and ICMA to provide municipal governments information on EMS. For more information on environmental management systems, contact either Megan Zadecky, Program Manager EMS Outreach Project, at mzadecky@apwa.net or Julia Anastasio, Senior Manager of Government Affairs, at janastasio@apwa.net. If you are interested in an EMS training event check the APWA website for details on upcoming offerings. The education and outreach conducted by APWA on environmental management systems has been made possible through Cooperative Agreement ##CP-83191201 awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water.

Julia Anastasio can be reached at (202) 218-6750 or janastasio@apwa.net.

Public works professional briefs Congress about pandemic flu

Becky Wickstrom
Manager of Media Affairs
APWA Washington Office

City parks filled with ducks and geese, poultry farms and family flocks are potential outbreak sites for avian flu. Found chiefly in birds, the H5N1 virus, which can cause severe disease or death in humans, will require extensive preparations and precautions to avoid escalation of a pandemic. In October during a briefing for congressional staff on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., APWA member expert Christine Walsh, Director of Operations for the City of Beloit, WI, discussed the role of public works in preparing for a pandemic flu outbreak.

APWA member Christine Walsh discussed the role of public works in pandemic flu preparations during a recent briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

"Public works staff are first-line responders in all emergency situations, including an influenza pandemic," said Walsh. "At the same time they respond to emergencies, they have continuous responsibility to keep our communities functioning by maintaining infrastructure, clean water, solid waste disposal and other essential day-to-day operations."

Walsh, who was born and raised on the world's largest fancy poultry farm and is a past partner in Walsh Farms, encouraged lawmakers to include public works staff in the group of responders who will be first to receive vaccinations should an outbreak occur. She emphasized the need to train employees about precautionary practices and develop an extensive response plan within the community and in local regions. Walsh also encouraged more practice exercises for public works staff with emergency responders including fire, police and medical services as well as agriculture experts.

APWA Congressional Briefings are one part of an awareness campaign to provide congressional staff with information about the role and needs of public works and infrastructure in local communities. APWA member experts brief staff members about issues ranging from transportation funding to emergency preparedness and clean water.

Becky Wickstrom can be reached at (202) 218-6736 or bwickstrom@apwa.net.