Managing the business of public works

Sandy Scott
Public Works & Municipal Services Director
EMA, Inc.
St. Paul, Minnesota

We see increasing press on the importance of leadership in driving the forces of change required for public agencies to compete in the new marketplace. However, leadership alone cannot establish a competitive position. Our experience in business transformation has led to a better understanding of the importance of applying both leadership and business management practices to achieve high-performance goals. Both leadership and management skills are needed in today's competitive public works organization.

It's not easy
Public works managers face barriers of training, experience, personal style, and organizational environment that make the necessary transition to business management difficult. It requires a profound commitment to learn and to change on a personal as well as organizational level. It also requires adopting and behaving according to a whole new set of management concepts or paradigms—concepts that are profoundly uncomfortable for many.

Today's business world, including stakeholders, customers and employees, expects that their public works services will be both high quality and competitive in price. Public works managers can deliver on these expectations only with a shift of paradigms to think and act as business managers:

  • From an operations management focus on equipment, materials, tools, and practices of the operation to a business management focus on optimum performance of the people.

  • From a budget administration focus on accounting/auditing requirements and cost control to a resource management view of expenditures as an investment in service delivery and spending to support optimal production.

  • From a command and control bureaucracy where organization structure and positional authority control the work of employees to empowered employees where decision-making is at the lowest practical level and people are valued and trusted to deliver quality performance.

  • From communications channels as formal channels for passing messages, decisions, and work instructions down through the organization to communications networks with ongoing, two-way communication throughout the organization.

  • From a public service view as experts, often paternalistic, toward the public and making decisions about levels of service "in the public interest" without input to a customer service view to think and act as a competitive provider of services, listening to the voice of customers.

  • From managing for stability in the processes of production and predictability throughout the organization to leading change by people who find new, innovative solutions, and organizations that accept risk as a part of innovation.
Leadership and management skills needed
Leadership shows the way, but the hard work of transforming public works operations and demonstrating the ability to deliver quality service at competitive prices rests with management. The principal difference between public works agencies and private contract operators is not one of leadership and vision. Rather, it is a difference in fundamental concepts and approaches. Public works agencies must learn from the competition and develop a team of business-based managers if they are to survive under public operation.

Sandy Scott can be reached at (651) 639-5708 or by e-mail at