Elements of an operations manual

How to help your staff understand and do their job better

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Director of Public Works (retired)
City of Greeley, Colorado
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

With the many forces acting on public works agencies (i.e., regulations, revenue shortages, increased service requests, aging infrastructure, growth, personnel changes, and workplace diversity), a consistent method of providing services would be helpful to the agency. A standard response is essential to providing the most cost-effective services in a timely manner. An operations manual can function as a training document, a public awareness document, a description of the level of services provided, and a document that can be utilized during emergency or special situations. While an operations manual is essential to providing good services, the manual should not be so rigid that flexibility, innovation, and efficiency are restricted.

With that introduction, what are the essential elements of an operations manual? While it is not possible to develop a "standard" that fits all agencies, there are, in my opinion, some key elements that should be in any operations manual. The adoption of a manual from one agency may not "fit" your specific agency; however, it may serve as a guide.

The Greeley Public Works Department consists of 170 FTE, 8 Divisions, and an operating budget of $16 million. Each of the Divisions (Facility Management, Transit, Administration, Engineering, Street Maintenance, Traffic Operations, Stormwater Management, and Equipment Maintenance) has developed an operations manual that is specific to each Division.

Elements that are included in the City of Greeley's Public Works eight operational manuals are as follows:

A. Overview

  • Introduction
  • Purpose of Manual
  • Description of the Services Provided by the Division
  • Mission Statements
  • Workload Indicators
  • Organization Chart
  • Goals/Objectives
  • Performance Indicators/Year End Report

B. Policies

  • Job Descriptions/Responsibilities
  • Location of Work Site
  • Working Hours
  • Attendance
  • Time Tracking
  • Training/Career Development
  • Certificates/Licenses
  • Special Policies
  • Customer Service & Guidelines

C. Operations Procedures

  • Statement of the Activity
  • Personnel/Equipment Listings (Inventory)
  • Preparing for the Season
  • Specific Procedures for Services Provided
  • Safety Procedures
  • Emergency Procedures

The introduction of the manual should include its purpose. ("The purpose of this manual is to provide an overview of the Public Works [insert specific] Division and provide a policy and procedure guide for its operations. It is intended that this manual be provided to new employees, as a refresher to existing employees, and to other interested persons.")

A short section that describes the mission, vision, values, goals, and objectives of the Division should be included.

A description of the services that the Division provides (all of its program elements, i.e., snow/ice control, regulation control, street sweeping, drainage maintenance, building maintenance, signals, markings) should be included. The manual should also include a description of the workload indicators (miles of roadway, number of signals, number of reviews, etc.). This is the amount of work for which this Division is responsible.

An organization and a function chart will provide an instructional graphic for both the employees and the public.

A section on performance indicators (how well did you do?) should be an important part of the manual.

This section includes policies that are specific to each Division. While many of the personnel policies are covered in a citywide policy, each Division has certain policies that are specific to that operation. These policies could include such items as location of work site, working hours, dress code, cell phone usage, reporting functions, ethics, job site behavior, attendance policies, and time tracking. Training opportunities and the maintenance of required certifications (i.e., First Aid/CPR, CDL licenses, equipment operations) are important considerations.

The manual should contain a section on customer service (i.e., citizen interaction, conduct, service surveys) and accountability.

Lastly, the manual could include any other policies/procedures that are specific only to that Division (i.e., fire extinguisher operations, radio procedures, office cleanliness, ethics, special equipment operation training).

Operations Procedures
This section is the heart of any operations manual. This is where the "rubber hits the road." This section can be expanded to include any and all procedures on how to conduct a specific job function. Remember, earlier I said that the manual should not be so rigid as to restrict flexibility, innovation, and efficiency. Do not let written policies/procedures restrict your ability to respond efficiently and timely to the needs of the citizens and to situations. The manual should be proactive versus reactive. However, to be consistent in providing services, some specificity is required.

A critical element in this area is an inventory of personnel and equipment. The personnel inventory includes those individuals assigned to specific jobs. The equipment inventory should include a listing of equipment, both large and small, and supplies to be used for specific jobs (i.e., snow control, supply levels, stormwater maintenance, sweeping, signal maintenance).

A second important element is, what I call, preparing for the season. Specific items could include getting plows/spreaders ready, readying mowers, paint truck preparations, ordering of materials and supplies, reviewing previous years' operations, reviewing increased responsibilities, and new regulations that may dictate methods and training sessions.

The third important element is providing specific procedures and responsibilities for individual programs. This could include specific information on Capital Improvement Projects, engineering design/review standards and process, construction in the public right-of-way permit process, disposal of used oil and waste products from vehicles, vehicle repair priorities, custodial methods, facility inspections, project management, and security and work order systems. The manual should also include schedules for specific services (i.e., sweeping, mowing, blading).

Safety procedures could include safety training, accident reporting, job site safety (work zones), equipment operations, shop/yard safety, and hazardous material handling. Emergency procedures should include such items as emergency response, current phone numbers of staff and key agencies, response modes (flood, tornado, fire, snow, etc.).

Any endeavor to develop an operations manual, or updating an existing one, must include, in my opinion, extensive employee involvement. The people who do the actual work also have the expertise to improve the "how to."

To initiate an operations manual, it might be helpful to review the newest edition of the Public Works Management Practices Manual. The specific chapters that deal with your operations are a good guide for developing an outline for an operations manual.

In closing, we all employ an "operational manual" to some extent. It's called institutional memory. Senior staffs know how to do things based on how they did it in the past; this is called experience. The downside of this situation is how to train new staff members, especially when senior staff retire.

If all else fails, read the instructions—or in this case, read the manual.

Bill Sterling, P.E., a past APWA Top Ten recipient, can be reached at sterling@publicworksmanagement.com.

Agencies can use the Public Works Management Practices Manual as a tool to develop or improve existing practices, enhance performance, increase productivity, and strengthen employee morale. The manual can be ordered online at www.apwa.net/bookstore or call the Member Services Hotline at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 3560.