An effective public works manager...anticipates future needs

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Public Works Director (retired)
Port Angeles, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has developed a set of core competencies for public works managers. The series of articles in the APWA Reporter based on these competencies-entitled "The Baker's Menu"-is designed to help public works professionals recognize and develop managerial talent. Included in this issue is the thirteenth in the series of competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

"Anticipate: to give advance thought, discussion, or to foresee and deal with in advance. The prior action that takes into account a later action; visualization of a future event or state." - Webster's Dictionary

In my capacity as an Accreditation evaluator for APWA, I have the chance to see some of the best public works agencies in the country. The well-organized agencies tend to have a number of documents that define the organization, its responsibilities and its capabilities, most of which are geared to the future.

Some of the important documents include the following:

  • Mission, Vision and Values Statements
  • Strategic Plan
  • A Five-Year Operational Plan
  • Capital Improvement Plan (1, 5 and 10 years)
  • Operations Manuals
  • Inventory of Facilities
  • Condition Surveys of Facilities
  • Maintenance Reports for Facilities, Vehicles and Infrastructure
  • Goals and Objectives
  • Performance Measurements
  • Year-End Reports, Accomplishments

To these I would add two other helpful items: Know your S.W.O.T.

S=Strengths W=Weaknesses O=Opportunities T=Threats,

and Know Your Community!

Mission, Vision and Values Statements
One of the key elements in the management of organizations is the development and understanding of the organization's purpose in being. What is your agency's responsibility in the provision of municipal services? What is it that you do? How does your function fit into the overall function of your city's government? Can you articulate to your citizens and council your organization's role in simple terms? The agency's mission statement is a concise description of the fundamental purpose for which the agency exists. The mission should be clearly spelled out in non-technical language for the benefit of the governing boards, administrators, employees and the citizens. The mission must be short and to the point; one that any employee can remember and embrace.

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." - Antoine de Saint Exupery

The most important role of a vision in organizations is to give focus to human energy. It must enable everyone concerned to see more clearly what's ahead of them; to focus. A vision spans years and keeps us focused on the future.

The agency's values statement establishes the core values that will assist in fulfilling the mission of the agency. This statement answers the questions of what culture the leadership of the agency wants to create and how the employees are to act.

The mission, vision and values statements are so important and fundamental that they are the cornerstones for the APWA's Self Assessment Program. By the way, the Self Assessment program is one I would recommend both from personal experience and as an Accreditation evaluator.

Strategic Plan
Strategic thinking and planning is one of the most critical elements of public works management and is issue driven. Why do we plan in the first place? Very simply: to improve and prepare for the future.

"Instead of worrying about the future, let us labor to create it." - Hubert H. Humphrey

A strategic plan involves clarifying the agency's overall mission and the level of service provided to the community or customer base it serves, establishing long-range goals and objectives, developing a plan to reach those goals and objectives and designating a method to monitor the agency's progress towards these objectives so that the plan and objectives are modified to fit the changing needs of the agency and community.

Strategic planning provides the basis for performance-based budgets and evaluation systems that allow review of programs and personnel performance, service quality and productivity. A strategic plan points the way to the future.

"The trouble with the future is that it usually arrives before we are ready for it." - Arnold H. Glasgow

An excellent APWA document entitled Moving Forward is recommended to give a manager more and specific information regarding strategic planning.

Five-Year Operational Plan
This plan attempts to identify the agency's operational needs over a five-year period and could serve as a resource document for future operational budgets. The agency's five-year operational plan is a list of programs of traditional public works activities with the exception of providing services using new techniques, new equipment, new management methods and employee training and empowerment. The plan could be divided into five basic categories: equipment replacement; additional equipment; additional staffing; facility improvements/additions; and minor new programs/services.

Basically, the plan provides a basis of operations as we know them at the time the plan was developed. It allows a manager to calculate the effect of adding new programs, reducing programs, adding growth-related services and the shedding of services. Obviously, changes occur and programs are funded depending on resources available, but an operational plan gives the manager one more tool to anticipate future needs and be better prepared to explain the needs of the agency at budget time.

Capital Improvement Plan
The scheduling, over time, of physical public improvements is the essential task of capital improvement programming. The scheduling is based on a series of priorities according to need, desire or importance and to the community's ability to pay. Tied to an overall comprehensive plan for the community, the capital improvement plan (1) ensures that the public improvements portion of the comprehensive plan will be carried out; (2) calls attention to deficiencies in the community; (3) produces cooperation and coordination between various departments and other governmental agencies; (4) ensures that projects are not built before they are needed, or so late that costs become prohibitive; and (5) ensures that funds can be provided in a logical manner. The usual time frames of capital improvement plans are one year, five or six years and 10-20 years; a combination of short-range and long-range planning.

The capital improvement plan is a look at the present needs as well as the future needs of the community.

Operations Manuals
In many public works agencies there is often an absence of any recognizable efforts to document time-tested policies and procedures developed and used over the years. Typically, most agencies provide services using skilled teams of managers, engineers and technicians, who through years of experience have developed a set of "best practices." Oftentimes, however, these "best practices," made up of unwritten policies, procedures and certain ways of accomplishing things, remain in the staff members' heads and are, for the most part, lost when staff retires or there is turnover in the organization. Quite simply put, an operations manual is a written document that tells what you do, how you do it and provides for a consistent method of providing services. One of the main purposes is to provide the agency a basis with which to review the way it provides services and how it allocates its limited resources and provides the basis for anticipating future needs.

Inventory of Facilities, Condition Surveys of Facilities and Maintenance Reports
I purposely combined these items into one category as they are all related to the same thing: know your infrastructure. While most communities have had to conform to GASB 34 in one way or another, you may already have these items in one form or another. You may want to expand the inventories by using some type of asset management program. Only by knowing what you have and the condition in which they are, will you be able to predict when your infrastructure will need to be expanded, replaced or repaired. This information will assist you in developing a more realistic capital improvement plan. By knowing the location and quantity of the infrastructure and its condition, you can be in a better position to predict your future maintenance needs.

Goals and Objectives

"Where there are no goals, neither will there be significant accomplishments. There will only be existence." - Anonymous

Success is not an accident. It is the result of deliberate decisions, conscious efforts and immense persistence, and it begins with defined goals. Effective managers develop goals to help the organization (and its individuals) achieve its mission. The first step is to review your mission statement-what is your area of responsibility? Review the sources available to you, review past performance, involve your employees, set your priorities and then set your goals.

By now, we are all familiar with the term SMART goals. SMART goals are:
Specific...Measurable...Attainable...Relevant...Time-framed. There are many books and articles written on how to set goals, so I won't go into any more detail, except to say, in the words of a well-known sports-wear company, JUST DO IT!

Performance Measurements
After all is said and done, you need to develop a series of performance measurements. The strategic plan and your goals and objectives will set forth your workload and inputs; performance measurements will measure the outputs. The combination will determine your outcomes. How did you do on your goals? Do you have a handle on what you did and what it costs? Remember, how can you manage if you cannot measure? What is important gets measured. The use of performance measurements will give you an indication of the organization's capabilities and provide you with a basis to anticipate your future needs should your responsibilities change significantly.

As the search for better ways of producing results has never before been more critical, the development of accurate performance measurements, developed over time, will assist the manager in comparing the organization with other similar organizations, whether you do it informally or formally. Benchmarking is most commonly known as the process of measuring and comparing to identify ways to improve processes and achieve higher performance.

A word of caution: Be selective in what you measure, how you measure and what you do with the results. APWA has an excellent publication entitled Performance Measures for Public Works.

Year-End Reports, Accomplishments
A good way to wrap up all of the above information and results is to develop what I call a year-end report. In this report, you can list all of your goals, provide information on how many of those goals you completed, and report on the performance measurements you developed and all of your accomplishments (and shortcomings). This report will provide your stockholders (citizens, employees and governing bodies) with a report card of your agency's performance. The year-end report will also provide the manager with information about your agency's abilities and capabilities. The document will also be of value in identifying and anticipating your future needs.

I have tried to briefly develop a list of the documents that many well-managed public works agencies would rely on to anticipate the future. I know that all good public works managers use these in their operations to anticipate future needs. The "Baker's Menu" series is all about good management practices. APWA has many good publications available to assist in the development of the documents and programs listed in this article.

Why these documents? In case there are mid-year changes in operations, you can determine priorities to handle those unexpected changes.

If all of the listed examples fail to assist you in your quest to anticipate the future, I would recommend three other instruments: the infamous Magic 8-Ball (which has all of the answers); an upgraded model crystal ball; and when all else fails, resort to a Tarot deck of cards.

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

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Encourages Team Building
  • Involves Others
  • Possesses Oral/Written Skills
  • Builds Trust/Respect
  • Prioritizes
  • Sets Realistic Goals
  • Helps Others to Succeed
  • Resolves Conflict
  • Manages Time
  • Manages Workload
  • Develops Staff
  • Anticipates Future Needs
  • Is Flexible