The Role of the Public Works Director

Judith Mueller
APWA President

The role of the public works director has been a topic of much discussion over the past 10 years, and is certainly a key issue among the members of APWA.

Why? Because in many communities, the role of the public works director is changing dramatically. At one time, all of the decisions regarding a municipality's public works operations were made internally-the public works director would decide what work needed to be performed, and his or her decision was often final.

Now we have become far more customer oriented and community focused. Modern public works directors spend far more time out in the community building consensus, and the city council or board of supervisors often make what many people in the past considered pure engineering decisions. Because of this, public speaking and facilitating skills, along with the ability to build consensus among diverse areas of the community, have become more important to the public works director than ever before.

In my mind, the main responsibilities of the public works director are to provide the basic services to the citizens and maintain the basic infrastructure. The infrastructure may change from city to city or county to county, but essentially it all comes down to looking after the infrastructure and providing the day-to-day services to the people we serve.

In dealing with these responsibilities, the modern public works director obviously faces a number of challenges. Unfunded mandates is one such challenge-due to Stormwater Phase II, many communities needing to devote more attention and perform a higher level of maintenance to water quality than ever before are not seeing a funding source. Also, many public works directors are challenged by aging infrastructure and the need to invest major capital dollars to repair and maintain the existing infrastructure. Others are dealing with the massive problems of growth, and having to provide the infrastructure that is needed for their rapidly growing communities.

One way for the public works director to deal with these challenges is to network with his or her peers. Certainly, being able to physically visit other communities and talk with peers to see what they are doing is important. Being able to attend Congress-to network and see what is new in the world of public works-is equally important. Finally, being able to post questions and responses on APWA's infoNOW Communities is a wonderful opportunity for public works directors to share the knowledge they have gained through experience and education.

The role of the public works director is also being changed due to the computer. In fact, computers will be the biggest change that we will face in the next 10 years and, while it will be a very positive change, it will be a very expensive change as well. To be realistic, the computer is going to change the way we work. We are already seeing it happen-the instant demand for information by our citizens and customers is requiring us to examine how we do everything each day. Through the use of web sites, the ability to make real-time information available to all of our customers is something that is going to be demanded by our citizens in the very near future. In many cases, it already is.

There will always be a certain level of manual labor in public works, but the computer and computerized equipment are going to make us much more efficient than we have ever been, and will allow us to do more with less. As we watch the evolving products, services, and information coming to us via APWA InfoLink and the Internet, 2001 will be a year of dramatic change of what is available to us as public works professionals.