An effective public works accountable

William A. Sterling
Public Works Director
City of Greeley, Colorado
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has 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. Included in this issue is the third in our series of 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 leader takes responsibility for his or her individual actions as well as those of the organization and its members, using explicit explanations of expectations and objective measures to monitor progress."  — Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies brochure

"Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would feel were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly."  — Thomas Jefferson

Doing your job as expected demonstrates dependability. Doing your job better than expected demonstrates commitment. Commitment also means that you feel and act with a sense of dedication to the organization you represent and to your customers. Commitment shows that you are focused on achieving your duties and fulfilling your responsibilities to the best of your abilities within the time given to complete them. Although commitment comes from within and represents an attitude and desire to meet your obligations, it is clearly demonstrated by your actions. These actions can be small, such as a courtesy phone call to a citizen who seeks direction, or they can be large, such as a persistent effort to do the job right and save scarce tax dollars.

What is accountability? One definition is "doing what we are hired to do." This means being personally responsible—making agreements and following through in the following areas:

Human area:

  • Honest
  • Empowered
  • Responsible
  • Consistent
  • Personal Service
  • Initiative
  • Integrity
  • Respect

Technical area:

  • Good problem-solving skills
  • Admit ownership
  • Explore realistic alternatives
  • Follow through to completion
  • Let others know what they can expect from you
  • Sense of public stewardship
  • Good time management skills
  • Knowledge of department

Concepts of personal accountability:

  • Make and keep promises: If we don't do what we say we will, our credibility is tarnished, our integrity is questioned, and we are not acting in a way that proves we are trustworthy.
  • Realize that "change starts with me." Organizations change only when the individuals within the organization are willing to change.

Consider the following questions:

  • What have I done in the last week to be accountable?
  • What can I do to improve relationships with my customers (internal and external) and make a positive difference in fulfilling our mission?
  • What can I do to improve my accountability habits and skills and enhance my self-development?
  • How can I help others to be successful?


  • Practice persistence and patience. Nobody is perfect. Others are trying to be more accountable just like you are; cut them and yourself some slack.
  • Temper your skepticism: "Don't curse the tide; grab an oar and row."
  • Earn the right to have expectations. Don't expect others to do what you are not willing to do yourself.
  • Recognize accountability when you see it. In order for your organization to do a better job with accountability, personnel must be familiar with the organization's values and do their part to ensure that their personal behaviors and practices are in sync with those values.
  • Don't expect a payoff and you'll get one. If we only focus on "what's in it for me," we will miss the point. Consider doing something because "it's the right thing to do."

In order for an organization's goals to be reached, every person, whether working individually or in a work group, needs to know for what she or he will be held accountable. All performance starts with clear goals. The clearer you make each goal—spelling out exactly what will be done, by whom, by when, how successful achievement will be measured, and what good performance looks like—the more accountable you are making the person or persons who will carry it out.

Lastly, how do you measure accountability? Look to the mission of the organization, goals and objectives (set both by you and by your supervisor), the organization's strategic plan, year-end reports on accomplishments, personal evaluations, and meaningful performance indicators. If you want to know how you are doing, ask your customers (both internal and external) by the use of surveys.

"You may fool the whole world down the pathway of life and get pats on your back as you pass, but your final reward will be heartaches and tears if you cheated the man in the glass."  — Dale Winfrow

William A. Sterling can be reached at (970) 350-9795 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