What are the core competencies required of public works professionals?

Steve Magnusen
Director of Public Works
Libertyville, Illinois
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

“Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without strategy.” — Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf

In the summer of 2002 the APWA Leadership and Management Committee initiated a unique survey seeking the opinions of over 3,000 public works professionals from among the APWA membership. The same survey was also sent to over 300 non-member elected and senior appointed officials (mayors/managers/administrators) seeking their opinions on the same topic. A response rate of 11 percent was received from both groups. The survey asked these governmental managers to rank in order of importance a total of 62 “Core Competencies for Executive/Senior Level Positions in Public Works and Infrastructure Management in Local Government Agencies.” With the information obtained from the surveys, the committee plans to delve deeper into this key question: What are the core competencies required of public works professionals?

The core competency project has these objectives:

  1. To identify the core competencies and special skills necessary to effectively lead and manage a public works organization.
  2. To provide information necessary to evaluate existing programs and tools that are presently available to our members to increase their competence levels.
  3. To assist aspiring public works managers in understanding the competencies and skills they need to acquire in order to advance their careers.
  4. To help APWA identify opportunities for new training programs and resources that will prepare our members to become better managers.
  5. To identify differences of opinion between senior-level public works managers and elected or appointed officials.
About the survey
The Leadership and Management Committee spent considerable time developing core competencies it felt were relevant to professional public works operations. An initial list of over 90 competencies was reduced to a more manageable level of 62 in order to keep the survey from becoming too intimidating. Even so, the survey probably took the average respondent twenty minutes to complete. The survey noted that each competency was important but asked the respondents to assign a ranking of one (unimportant) to six (absolutely essential), and to try and use the full range of “importancy” point values in order to obtain survey results that were meaningful.

The core competencies were divided into five major areas of expertise, as follows:

  1. Technical — Five competencies.
  2. Managerial — Twelve competencies dealing with subheadings titled Planning, Budget and Financial Management, Outreach, Human Resources.
  3. Individual Behavioral — Twenty competencies dealing with Integrity, Interpersonal Relationships, Communications, Consensus Builder/Facilitator.
  4. Organizational — Eleven competencies dealing with Organizational Structure, Staff Development.
  5. Leadership — Fourteen competencies dealing with Vision, Motivation, Delegation, Personal Confidence.
Survey results—what attribute is most important to the APWA public works professionals who responded?
The top five most important competencies, in the opinion of the APWA members surveyed, were all from one area of expertise, that being Individual Behavioral. In fact, all four of the competencies listed in one subcategory in this area made the top-five list. That subcategory is Integrity. Here are those four Integrity competencies deemed to be the most essential attributes of a public works manager, shown with their ranking:

#1 Demonstrates and encourages high standards of integrity, trust and respect for others.
#2 Takes responsibility for personal actions.
#4 Demonstrates a commitment to quality public service.
#5 Conducts professional relationships and activities fairly, honestly, legally, and in conformance with the recognized APWA standards of professional conduct.

Ranking in the top five, and in third place overall, was this additional Individual Behavioral competency:

#3 Possesses ability to make decisions using the best information available.

The highest-rated quartile (top fifteen) of competencies were distributed as follows: Nine in the Individual Behavioral category, and two each from the Leadership, Managerial and Technical categories. Somewhat surprisingly, none of the Organizational competencies dealing with items such as department structure and staff development registered in the top fifteen.

What did the appointed and elected officials see as the most important attributes of their public works managers?
The appointed and elected officials who responded to the survey also gave their highest marks to most of the same individual-behavioral traits identified by the APWA members. For their top-five ranking, these officials listed four of the same competencies identified by the public works professionals. Those four, with their respective rankings, are as follows:

#1 Takes responsibility for personal actions.
#2 Demonstrates and encourages high standards of integrity, trust and respect for others.
#3 Demonstrates a commitment to quality public service.
#5 Conducts professional relationships and activities fairly, honestly, legally, and in conformance with the recognized APWA standards of professional conduct.

The one different competency in the “Appointed/Elected” officials top-five, ranked in fourth place, was in the Organizational/Staff Development category, that being:

#4 Takes timely and appropriate corrective/disciplinary actions with employees.

It is interesting to note that this competency was ranked much lower, #28, by the public works officials. The competency “Takes responsibility for personal actions,” ranked second by the public works officials, was ranked a respectable #8 by the appointed/elected officials.

What does this data suggest?
First, it seems obvious that individual integrity is recognized as the most essential attribute of successful public works professionals. This is a clear statement, and it is made not only by public works professionals, but also by the mayors/managers who they report to. Technical knowledge, planning skills, organizational expertise, and all the other competencies, each one important in its own right, all take a back seat to personal integrity and strong character values. General Schwarzkopf’s statement is certainly endorsed by the survey results.

Second, it would seem that the mayors and managers would like their high-integrity public works professionals to have the assertiveness to resolve personnel problems in a timely manner. Perhaps they have had experiences of deferred action that ultimately required their involvement to resolve. The public works professionals, on the other hand, seem to think that other competencies are more important. Why the difference in opinion? Perhaps the data reflects a tendency to avoid or postpone difficult personnel issues. A typical public works manager might consider it an interesting challenge to solve a technical problem or develop a long-range capital improvement plan, but the manager may procrastinate a bit if faced with a nagging personnel issue. Perhaps the data suggests a need for additional human resources training and people skills. Perhaps many managers need more assistance from their local HR departments.

What is next?
The results and comments contained in this short report are but the tip of the iceberg. The Leadership and Management Committee is just beginning to evaluate the data in detail, and we are excited about the prospect of using the information to help accomplish the core competency project objectives. Look for further articles in the Reporter as we analyze the information and present it to the membership. Look for even more information during the 2003 Congress in San Diego as the committee will sponsor a technical session on the subject.

Steve Magnusen can be reached at (847) 362-2430 or at SteveM@libertyville.com.