Hillsborough County Public Works Department's APWA Accreditation Process

Mariana Llanso
General Manager III
Hillsborough County, Florida
Past Chair, APWA Florida Chapter Accreditation Committee

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 40 agencies, making a current total of 42, have joined the ranks, with 40 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 seventh 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/.

It is important for public works professionals to know the strengths and opportunities for improvement of their organization. As a business practice this knowledge is a tool to identify needs, analyze gaps, and guide the distribution or allocation of resources. A self-assessment program is effective, but when one pairs that self-assessment with a site visit by a team of independent subject matter experts who perform a comprehensive evaluation and conclude with a report of their findings with recommendations, this is just amazing!

There are many self-assessment and continuous improvement programs. In fact, my first assignment in this project was to compare and contrast the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program and the Florida Governor's Sterling Program with the APWA accreditation program. We chose the APWA accreditation program for several reasons:

  1. Because it was formulated by experts in the field of public works;

  2. Because the APWA Public Works Management Practices Manual offered full functional guidance for the assessment and improvement of our specific operations; and,

  3. Because APWA is without question the leading international professional association for public works.

Here is the bottom line: The APWA accreditation process is the best—bar none—continuous improvement process any public works agency could hope to implement.

For Hillsborough County, the value of the accreditation process evolved over time. We started out in 2002 with the conscious decision that a primary goal was not winning the award. Instead, the focus was to assess where we were using the Public Works Management Practices Manual as guidance and on having a team of public works professionals evaluate that assessment and give us their recommendations for improvement. I was present during the discussion among my department's leadership at the time and I have to say that I was filled with pride. It takes a lot of courage to submit your practices and operations for public review in the highly political environment of local government. As we completed our self-assessments (Yes! We conducted two full self-assessment and improvement phases), we realized that although many improvements still had to be implemented, our Public Works Department was in very good shape and that made us set our sight on the honor of being awarded Accredited Agency status.

The three most important factors in the process are:

  1. Leadership. Without your department or agency formal leadership involvement you will go nowhere, bank on it. We were so very blessed in that respect. Since the process began, Bob Gordon, our Department Director, was very involved especially in the beginning; he set the vision, the direction and the scope, and he established the program as a top goal for the department. At no time did he micro-manage, as that is not his style, but the follow-up was steady. Conversely, Fred Nutt, our Operations and Fiscal Administration Division Director, got very involved towards the end of the process. He reviewed, revised and edited, and gave guidance, direction, recommendations and the like. Both functions were truly essential for our accreditation process. The Division Directors for Traffic (Mike McCarthy), Engineering (Scott Cottrell) and Transportation Maintenance (John Newton) were absolutely awesome in their leadership, support and involvement.

  2. The Accreditation Team. Each chapter should have a point of contact lead with considerable technical expertise. The ideal point of contact complements his or her technical expertise with written communication skills. But don't stress if both competencies are not present because that is why you have...

  3. The Accreditation Manager. It is crucial that he or she have the following skills and attitude:
  • Skills: excellent organization, written, oral and interpersonal communication skills;
  • Attitude: positive, patient, helpful, positive, persistent. Did I mention positive?

Here are some of the mistakes I made and how I intend to resolve them:

  1. Although our County Administrator asked each department director to assign a liaison (you need these especially for the first nine chapters), I shied away from in-depth contact lest I inconvenience them. Anyone who knows me is more than likely thinking, "Shied away? She shied away from something?!" Well, I did and this was painfully reflected during the site visit where all of our scores in substantial compliance came from those first nine chapters. This will change in reaccreditation and it is my responsibility as Accreditation Manager to ensure consummate assertiveness in the fact-finding and in the provision of documentary proof.

  2. I assigned myself as point of contact lead for four chapters. Big mistake! On the Monday of the site visit, after having already gone through two full days of self-inflicted tension where one is taking care of every small detail, by 5 p.m. one is in no shape to start working on bringing practices that were found in partial compliance to at least substantial compliance. This is a pattern I have also recognized in some of my peers out there. It may be that we are taking a bit too much ownership of the process; it may be that someone in the organization has told us, "Accreditation is your project, not mine," or it could be that there is legitimately no one else to take the lead on particular chapters. If the latter is the case, then the best advice I can give is to have a very efficient administrative assistant assigned to catering and logistics during the site visit.

  3. Instead of thinking about the evaluators' convenience and lack of familiarity with our building, I focused on having the chapter leads assigned to conference rooms adjacent to their work areas in the event they needed to retrieve any document to proffer as proof of compliance. The result was that evaluators shuttled between four or five different conference rooms. Confusion reigned on Tuesday afternoon when we had three evaluators and three chapter leads mismatched and it took ten very valuable minutes to pair everyone as scheduled. Doug Brown and Mike Miller at Overland Park, Kansas have an excellent room assignment system which I intend to emulate at reaccreditation and highly recommend.

The benefits of accreditation are numerous. Some of these are:

  1. Benchmarking: The Accreditation infoNOW Community is a continuous flow of knowledge-sharing among the agencies that are either formally pursuing accreditation or have already been awarded Accredited Agency status. A wealth of practices, policies, procedures and processes are transmitted; peer review is solicited and conducted. I don't want to sound sappy, but we are indeed a family of professionals that more than anything want each other to succeed.

  2. Business Results. Hillsborough County established outcome performance measurements tied to the APWA accreditation practices; the FY08-09 budget cycle will report our business results based on the industry standards.

  3. Recognition. It is very rewarding to have our public works peers congratulate us on this huge achievement and commitment to continued excellence.

  4. Pride in telling our citizens that we are doing good things for them.

We are very excited about the future. Our Reaccreditation and Monitoring Program is already underway and thanks to APWA we have the most awesome continuous improvement program any public works department could hope for.

One final word: No article on accreditation can be complete without mentioning the energy, the heart and the soul of the APWA accreditation program. I know I speak for all of us when I say that we are very, very blessed to have Ann Daniels.

Mariana Llanso can be reached at (813) 307-1819 or llansom@hillsboroughcounty.org.