An effective public works decisive

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has recently published the brochure entitled "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure is based on a survey of public works officials and those who employ them to determine the most important characteristics of an effective public works leader. These "Baker's Dozen" core competencies help public works professionals recognize and develop leadership talent. Over the next year, each issue of the APWA Reporter will feature one or two of the core competencies recommended by the committee. For more information, please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

"The Department is filled with able men who analyze well, but feel compelled always to bring [problems] to me for a final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me what they have done." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

The public works profession often demands quick decisions in an environment of uncertainty.

Uncertainty can take many forms. Often, public works decisions are required without the full depth and breadth of information that would typically be desirable. Sometimes the opposite occurs, where there is too much information. The public works professional can be bombarded with opinions, with many sides jockeying for their position. Sorting out valuable input vs. uninformed rhetoric can be dicey. Frequently, political parameters also need to be considered. This type of environment can be confusing and intimidating and can lead to "paralysis by analysis"—where the fear of making a decision paralyzes the decision-maker.

The effective public works leader must have the confidence and strength to move past these challenges and must be willing to accept the risks and responsibilities of making decisions. This includes assembling as much relevant information as possible, soliciting input from stakeholders and advisors, and then proceeding to a quick, firm, and unambiguous decision. The public works leader must also be unafraid to stand behind decisions made and admit when a decision may not have been the optimum choice.

Consider a public works professional that you respect and admire. In describing this person, most likely, one of their memorable attributes would be their decisiveness. People intuitively look to individuals that are willing to make difficult decisions.

How does a public works professional learn to be a decision-maker? First, find a respected mentor and ask for some advice and guidance in your particular environment. Are there political parameters in play that you need to consider? Are there technical issues that you should research? Are there stakeholders that should be consulted? Learning the nuances of effective decision-making can be much less scary if a trusted advisor is assisting you. Even if you do not have the luxury of a mentor, consider bouncing your proposed decision off of a few friends and gauge their reactions. Although you will find that you won't need a mentor for long, it is always a good idea to solicit other perspectives. But you will ultimately be the person standing behind your decisions and dealing with the consequences of your decisions, so you must trust your own judgment and be confident in your actions.

Another way to "warm up" your decision-making skills is to start small. Evaluate the risks and consequences and take on those decisions with little risk first. All decisions have risk, but evaluating the risk will help to define what is really at stake. This is an easy way to break the "paralysis by analysis" habit. Often, the consequences and costs of indecision can be worse than those of making a decision. Once you realize that indecision has more dire consequences, moving forward should be easier.

Another tip is to evaluate the cost of evaluation relative to the risk and cost of the decision involved. Convening a study committee costing $500 per hour to study the best $25 widget is not a good use of resources. When the risk and the cost are small, a good leader recognizes it is better to move ahead.

A final step in the decision-making process is the willingness to admit when a decision was incorrect. Everyone has 20/20 hindsight, so it easy to criticize decisions after the fact. Consequently, you may find yourself subject to the "Monday morning quarterback" if a decision goes awry. This should not be cause for panic, but rather acceptance of a learning opportunity. As a decision-maker, evaluation of your decisions and their effectiveness should be a routine part of your process. You should be your own worst critic and make each situation a learning experience. This will serve to strengthen your decision-making abilities.

As a public works professional, you are leading your agency. Regardless of where you are on the organizational chart, you have daily opportunities to provide leadership and to make decisions. Many of these decisions will be opportunities to distinguish yourself as a public works professional. Your decision-making ability is observed by your staff, your supervisors, your elected officials and your constituents. Use this as way to develop and demonstrate your leadership skills.

As the saying goes, anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. Practice and refine your decision-making skills in calm waters, so that when the storm strikes you will be ready with the courage and confidence needed to make sound decisions in adverse conditions. You will be rewarded with a growing reputation as an effective public works leader!

Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Possesses Integrity
  • Is Accountable
  • Is Decisive
  • Is Public Service Oriented
  • Empowers Others
  • Is Deliberate
  • Is a Communicator
  • Shows Respect for Others
  • Is Technically Knowledgeable
  • Manages Resources
  • Is Resilient
  • Delegates
  • Maintains Balance