Accreditation is a leadership activity

Bob Hyde, P.E., Executive Director, Port of Anacortes, WA; former Public Works Director, City of Anacortes, WA
Sandi Andersen, Accreditation Manager, Public Works Department, City of Anacortes, WA

December 15, 1997 was a historic day for APWA's accreditation program. On that day the City of Greeley, CO and the Village of Schaumburg, IL became the first two accredited agencies in North America. In the past ten years, an additional 37 agencies, making a current total of 39, have joined the ranks, with 37 in the United States and two in Canadian provinces.

Throughout 2007, accredited agencies, their staff members, evaluators, and elected officials will be sharing their experiences with the program. The first article in the series is presented below. For more information about the program, contact Ann Daniels at adaniels@apwa.net or (816) 595-5223, or visit the website at www.apwa.net/About/Accreditation/.

Poet and outdoorsman Robert Service once said, "It isn't the mountain that wears you out, it is the grain of sand in your shoe." We public works professionals usually spend a lot of time trying to climb mountains with a beachload of sand in each shoe. Some of us can even get pretty good at it! We tend to never truly solve problems, but just go from crisis to crisis. I would submit that true leaders work at getting those grains of sand out of their shoes, and make faster time to get to the mountaintop.

Accreditation is a true leadership activity. The accreditation process undertaken by the City of Anacortes' Public Works Department was perhaps the most significant achievement in the department's 115-year history. It inspired, directed and "forced" the department to do things and review areas which had been neglected or purposely avoided for years. Major areas we "never had the time" to fix, such as a lack of engineering and development standards, and an archaic management system in our equipment maintenance shop, amazingly were created during the accreditation process while still meeting the normal day-to-day workload! One by one the grains of sand in our shoes were addressed and removed.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Today, other municipalities come to Anacortes to see and borrow our engineering standards and development processes, as well as our automated equipment maintenance system. The departmental leadership focuses on planning and goal setting rather than being mired down in the crisis of the day. These are the things that accreditation can do for your organization.

The harvest is plenty but the workers are few. When I first began to discuss taking on the challenge of accreditation with APWA in 2002, I was shocked to find out that so few public works and infrastructure agencies had shown interest in the program. At the time, fewer than 20 agencies had become accredited, and perhaps a dozen more were active in the process. In the fall of 2005 when we at the City of Anacortes, Washington, received our accreditation, we were just the 27th agency in North America to do so. Today there are 39 accredited agencies and 15 more under contract. Out of the thousands of public works agencies in North America, this is a small number.

No excuses. I began to advocate a bit for accreditation and received a number of common reasons or excuses for not attempting this effort.

  1. No time. I submit that many organizations have not the time to dedicate because they are unorganized, lack clarity of goals and vision, and thus, are stuck in the "surf zone" of day-to-day crisis. No organization needs accreditation more than an organization that can't find the time! As a public works leader, if you are not aggressively seeking to improve your organization then you are truly just "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" rather than steering the Titanic to avoid the icebergs.

  2. Too expensive. Yes, accreditation costs some money and time to accomplish. I think we spent about $15,000 to become accredited, not including staff time. However, the cost to the taxpayers of not accomplishing accreditation is even greater. As we all know, public works agencies manage the lion's share of most municipal budgets. And yes, I have been there as a public works director where the agency is not hemorrhaging from one or two easily identifiable, hugely wasteful areas, but more normally dying from "a thousand small cuts." Accreditation patches up all these "small cuts" and saves thousands of dollars each year, and avoids future costs by making your staff more focused and effective.

  3. Accreditation is just a bunch of bureaucracy. Accreditation is lots of paperwork, but it is important paperwork. The beauty of the process is that everyone should be writing some of it. Some of the most important parts of our accreditation work were written by journeyman-level mechanics, water distribution workers, water and wastewater plant operators, or street crew technicians. I cannot overemphasize the teamwork and "buy-in" you receive from your crews when and if you let them be part of the process. Who better to write a draft policy on water system cross-connection control than your own water crew? We did this and the buy-in is 100%.

  4. My elected officials won't support it. Frankly, I thought this would be true at the start of our process. However, the elected officials for the City of Anacortes were great supporters of the process. They were able to now see the increased teamwork in the public works department, as well as the cross-departmental teamwork. You must be getting along famously with Legal, Human Resources, Finance, Information Systems, and Planning in order to become accredited, as they each have a section of the Manual. Right there is a reason to go through accreditation.

Accreditation creates a learning organization. I believe that accreditation is the most important leadership activity available to an agency director. Taking on a huge, long-term goal for an organization, such as accreditation, is the responsibility of public works leaders and no one else. By initiating the process you will learn the intricacies of your organization, free up countless hours of time (policies allow lower-level staff people to make decisions), and build esprit de corps and teamwork from the success that comes from hard work and accomplishment of lofty goals.

The unintended consequences are awesome! A word of warning: There are some unintended consequences of accreditation. First, if you allow your full staff to participate, you will be amazed at the pride taken in being an accredited agency. It is overwhelming. Everyone wants to be on a winning team, and being accredited shows you are a winner! Second, the public will appreciate having an accredited agency more than you think. Taxpayers like to be supporting a winning organization with their tax dollars. Third, you will continue to become more successful. Your senior leaders will suddenly have more time to plan and lead your organization as the brush fires smolder and then are extinguished.

Well, what are you waiting for? If Anacortes, Washington, population 15,754, can do it, so can you!

Bob Hyde can be reached at (360) 299-1812 or hyde@portofanacortes.com; Sandi Andersen can be reached at (360) 293-1921 or sandia@cityofanacortes.org.