Determining Your Level of Service

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Deputy Director of Recreation
City of Port Angeles, Washington
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the eighth in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

Just doing the best you can, is no longer acceptable. The best public works agencies commit to delivering at a certain level, deliver at that level and prove that they can deliver. Establishing service levels is the key to accomplishing this.

"In order for the agency to be able to plan for the future, it must establish levels of service to be provided to the community or customer base for each of the agency's functional responsibilities. These important policy summaries are set forth in writing and communicated to agency customers. This activity may be done in conjunction with the budget process." (APWA Public Works Management Practices Manual, 5th Edition)

Definition of Level of Service
What is a level of service? Simply put, it is the agency's ability to produce a service within a set time, cost or resource. It's the ability to perform. A level of service, linked to an agency's capability, can help:

  • better define what you do
  • help prioritize workloads
  • manage resources
  • set performance standards
  • develop major work steps or functions

Level of Service Capability
Reviewing your past performance is important and will, to some extent, determine what your capabilities are to achieve a certain level of service. Combined with meaningful performance measures, you are able to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what your agency's capabilities are. By measuring the agency's ability to, say, sweep your streets four times per year, and if all things are equal (efficiency, accurate performance measures and factoring in inflation), it can be equated that an agency can effectively sweep 1,000 curb miles per year. If growth increases the agency's street mileage responsibility, the level of service will most likely drop if additional resources are not provided, or priorities shifted.

Categories of Service Levels
There are five basic categories of a level of service for your agency (a service level within a service level, so to speak):

  • A level of service that is directed by your governing board
  • A level of service directed by surveying the citizens
  • A level of service adopted for your community when compared with similar communities (benchmarking)
  • The level of service your community can afford or prioritizes
  • The level of service that you, as the public works manager, determines or recommends that your agency be accomplished within the resources given to you

In a perfect situation, these five scenarios would be the same. However, we all know that public works and the services provided are not perfect situations. So how do you, the public works manager, try to bring some closure on the service levels and the priorities? In previous articles, several programs and procedures have been mentioned: goals, objectives, benchmarking, efficiency, effectiveness and performance measurements. Understanding the agency's capabilities will provide the manager with the information which with to set the service levels.

Directed Level of Service. What do we mean by "directed level of service"? It is the level of service that is set (or demanded) by others: councils, citizens, laws, seasonal periods, etc. For example, your agency may be directed to remove all snow from all streets, down to bare pavement, within 48 hours. With this directive in mind, the manager determines the equipment, materials, personnel and budget needed to achieve this level of service. Another example is the level of sweeping (or cleanliness) of streets that may be a high priority in your community. The level of service requested for street sweeping may be "all streets swept a minimum of once per week." While these two examples may be extreme for many municipalities, the level of service requirements will dictate the agency's capability to provide this service.

Another major factor that will affect a level of service is budget resources. Limited resources (probably a majority of situations) will require the public works leader to work within the resources available to strike a balance between priorities, needs, wants and wishes (sort of a level of service in itself).

Citizen Surveys. The results of citizen surveys can be an indicator of effectiveness (or dissatisfaction) of the level of service provided by your agency. If the surveys indicate a satisfaction of street sweeping efforts but indicate a dissatisfaction of weed control, the public works manager may want to shift some resources from street sweeping (lower the service level) to weed control (raise the level of service). To be sure, this shifting is a balancing act between issues (clean water laws, community appearance, etc.).

A good public works manager may be more critical of the agency's levels of service than the general public. With limited resources, the manager must balance the levels of service set by the agency (the manager) and the levels of service required (or perceived) by the citizens or the governing board.

Benchmarking. The term "benchmarking" means the regularly and widely used measure of work or customer response that meets the expectations of the customers.

Benchmarking can be utilized in two ways:

  • implementing best practices
  • comparing levels of service from similar communities

While not a true benchmarking exercise, it is the latter program which could be used in the context of recommending service levels for your community. Keeping in mind the levels of service demanded by your community, the governing board's desires and limited resources, a definitive comparison may not be entirely possible.

Public accountability and a move to improve governmental efficiency and effectiveness bring about comparisons to other municipalities. While comparing your agency with others, you must be cognizant that "cities may provide different levels of service and categorize expenses in different ways." Recognizing varying service levels and the unique types of service provided is an essential first step toward making valid service level comparisons.

All of the above being said, there is some value in researching the levels of service being provided by other similar agencies. Keep in mind, we are not talking about costs or best practices; we are only comparing the levels of service provided.

Affordable Level of Service. This level of service is dictated by the level of resources available. Driving this level of service may be the priorities set by your governing body. Certainly, public safety is a critical quality of life issue. In most cases, this service may be a higher priority than street sweeping, higher levels of snow removal or street maintenance.

Under these circumstances, it becomes critical that the public works manager be aware of the agency's capabilities and the resources available. The manager can provide the governing body with a service level on all activities. This information will be useful when citizen dissatisfaction arises or the agency is requested to do more.

Establishment of Service Levels
Most times, a public works manager will be given a set budget and is expected to provide the most cost-effective and responsive level of service possible. To set your service levels, you will need the following:

  • performance indicators
  • an inventory of equipment, personnel and materials
  • time constraints (i.e., seasonal weather)
  • the cost to provide the service

In most cases, performance indicators only measure the output (work accomplished), i.e.,

  • number of catch basins cleaned (10,000)
  • number of curb miles swept (12,000)
  • number of traffic signs replaced (3,000)
  • square footage of building maintenance (600,000)
  • acres mowed (1,000)
  • number of street cut permits issued (600)
  • number of potholes filled (25,000)
  • number of transit vehicle miles traveled (500,000)

While this information is valuable, it only measures the agency's accomplishments (its output, if you will), and has to take into account a number of variables (priorities, workload, work plans, goals, objectives, etc.).

Now let's add a key ingredient to the mix of performance measures—costs. A word of caution at this time—establishing cost for various levels of service is tricky at best. Costs can vary each year by such items as inflation, cost of materials, fuel costs, and inefficiency of equipment (getting older-higher maintenance costs), aging infrastructure and wages and experience of the workforce. However, by keeping a record over a period of time, say five years, a manager can get a good handle on the agency's capabilities. All things being equal, a manager now has the ability to determine the agency's budget needs. Given the resources, the manager can now adjust the agency's level of resources.

Let's use the same measures mentioned above, but add costs to the measures:

There are many activities that could be generated similarly. Now, by combining all street maintenance activities and costs and by dividing by the overall street mileage, one could come up with a per-mile cost. Using this information a manager could reasonably predict the effect of growth on the agency's operations:

Using this data (with caveats) the manager could predict the costs for adding street mileage to the community's jurisdiction (annexations, development, etc.).

For example: adding 24 miles of streets through annexation and 12 miles through development activities for a total of 36 miles, the costs for the additional 36 miles @ $6,157/mile = $221,664 increase in costs (without inflation).

If the resources are not increased, the manager will have to revise the overall level of service (i.e., street sweeping, snow removal levels, street maintenance, mowing).
The above information could be useful for determining the impact of development and annexation.

Some Typical Levels of Service Statements
Sometimes a level of service seems like a goal, so a manager needs to be able to distinguish between a "want" and what is really possible. Remember, we are looking at the agency's capabilities...not necessarily what you want to achieve. Some examples of service levels include:

Sweep City-owned (curbed) streets:
- Arterials: 2 x per month
- Collectors: 1 x per month
- Local: 6 x per year
- Downtown: Every Friday

Fix all minor potholes within 24 hours

Replace all missing traffic signs within:
- Warning signs: 1-3 hours
- Guide signs: 5 days

Respond to facility maintenance requests:
- Emergencies: within 1 hour
- Major requests: within 8 hours
- Minor requests: within 24 hours

Process street cut permits within 48 hours

Review development plans within 7 days

Catch basin cleaned: 2 x per year

Repair traffic signs within 24 hours

Complete vehicle repairs within:
- Light duty: within 48 hours
- Heavy duty: within 72 hours
- Emergency: within 24 hours

Notice that no quantities have yet been assigned to the above examples. Can your agency indeed meet the levels of service you set? By combining your workload (i.e., number of miles of streets) with your past performance (performance indicators), you can determine your actual capabilities. Now compare this to your levels of service desired. Do they match? Probably not, so you'll have to adjust the service levels you initially set.

Periodic Review
As there are so many variables associated with determining performance measures and costs, a manager needs to review these measurements and costs periodically. Factors such as weather, emergencies, fuel prices, aging infrastructure, changing priorities and laws may have an effect on the agency's service levels. It is suggested that a minimum of tracking costs and measures over a period of five years be conducted.

William Sterling, a past APWA Top Ten recipient, can be reached at

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment