University of Connecticut graduate students help local agencies through use of APWA's self-assessment process

Fran Greenglass
Graduate Student
University of Connecticut

During the spring 2001 semester, students enrolled in the University of Connecticut's Master of Public Affairs program had the opportunity to participate in a joint venture with several Connecticut municipalities to begin the process of self-assessment for the towns' public works departments. The students worked under the auspices of the Institute of Public and Urban Affairs, which is the research arm of the Public Affairs program at UCONN. Cooperating towns were Avon, Berlin, Plainville, and Wethersfield, Connecticut.

The group of town managers, who recognized the value of the self-assessment process and had the full cooperation and encouragement of the public works department heads, initiated the project. Self-assessment, the beginning step toward full accreditation by APWA, involves examination of practices and procedures in 31 different program areas. Each program category, as delineated in APWA's Public Works Management Practices Manual, contains anywhere from five to thirty-four individual practices. Needless to say, examining and evaluating all the practices in all categories which are applicable to a public works department can be quite a time-consuming endeavor. Having the students on board provided an inexpensive way to get the towns started.

Three different categories were chosen for investigation: Section 2: Personnel Management (examined by Avon and Wethersfield), Section 6: Communications (Berlin and Plainville), and Section 26: Snow Removal and Ice Control (all four towns). Two students were assigned to each town, and worked closely with the designated representatives to identify and document how the town fared in relation to the ideal procedures as described for each practice in the manual. Using the software provided by APWA, results were recorded on individual "Management Practices Self-Assessment Project Tracking System" sheets. By working together, the towns benefited by comparing practices and learning from each other. For the students, it was a wonderful opportunity for a close-up, hands-on observation of local government and public management at work.

The conclusion of the project included presentation of the class findings to town managers, department heads, and participating town staff. As a final product, each town received a booklet containing a comparative report covering all four towns, an individual town summary, and the completed self-assessment forms for the categories evaluated. In their conclusion to the comparative report, the students summed up the results of the investigations:

    In practice, most of the towns are compliant with APWA's criteria in Personnel Management, Communications, and Snow Removal and Ice Control. However, while towns are complying in practice, there is often no written formal policy for many of the criteria. Formal documentation of all practices will be helpful in effective management and leadership. It provides a framework for improving management and employee relations. Additionally, documented policies can help to reduce ambiguity and encourage institutional learning by serving as a guide for future administrators. It is the recommendation of this report to consider formally documenting as many informal policies as possible.

Now that the self-assessment process has proven effective, the Institute for Public and Urban Affairs anticipates that future classes will continue the successful relationship that has developed between these four towns and students of the public affairs program in an effort to complete the entire self-assessment process. Whether any of the agencies will apply for formal accreditation from APWA is unknown; however, the framework has been established to enable them to do so if they desire.

The project was under the direction of Adjunct Professor Sandra Biloon, who teaches public personnel administration. Participating students were Sesselja Arnadottir, Lindsay Bagley, Peter Dinunzio, Jessica Galanos, Dawn Hayes, Joe LaHait, Erin Meacham, and Sunny Pondo. The entire project team would like to especially thank Dennis H. Ross, APWA's Director of Professional Development, who was always readily available to answer our many questions.

Fran Greenglass, who graduated from the M.P.A. program this spring, was Professor Biloon's graduate assistant.