"Constructing" the Atlanta Congress using only "papers" and people

Alan W. O'Brien, P.E.
Manager, Water/Wastewater Services
Gannett Fleming, Inc.
Phoenix, Arizona
Chair, 2004 APWA Congress Program Review Committee

In some ways, our APWA Congress is like our public works infrastructure—it is there for us to use and enjoy, but most people do not know how it is "constructed," what it takes to maintain, or what happens after the plans are complete. One of the key components of Congress (officially called the APWA International Public Works Congress and Exposition) is the development of over 150 program sessions, roundtables and workshops that occur over the four days. I was pleased this year to chair the committee that has responsibility for this effort-the Congress Program Review Committee, or CPR for short. The acronym is also true in a figurative sense—this group of six members breathes life into a four-day venue that will reach 6,000 participants.

The process began with the APWA Education Department staff preparing and advertising the "Call for Presentations." The submitted abstracts are the basic materials we use to construct the program. All of the CPR Committee members were required to read and rank all the abstracts. They were given 21/2 weeks in which to accomplish this—an effort that took approximately 10-20 hours to review the 250-plus proposals. After that, the CPR Committee worked with three individuals from the Education Department staff in a two-day "must attend" meeting to develop the actual program for the 2004 Congress.

The 2004 APWA Congress Program Review Committee. From left: David Berg, Senior Principal Engineer, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting, Anchorage, AK; Bill Spearman, Partner, Woolpert LLP, Columbia, SC; Michael Joyner, Liaison Director, Utilities Protection Center, Vidalia, GA; Alan O'Brien, Manager-Water/Wastewater Services, Gannett Fleming, Phoenix, AZ, and committee chair; David Yue, Senior Associate, Stantec, Edmonton, AB; and Brenda Herrman, Director of Public Works, City of Hays, KS

On Friday morning in early November, the fun began. The staff had reserved a "war room" in which to seclude us for the weekend where we focused on the task at hand. Various spreadsheet reports containing the individual and group rankings we had previously submitted were distributed and reviewed to ensure that important issues that had not made the top-ranked 105 presentations could be reconsidered. In addition, the list was reviewed for other items such as duplication of topics, multiple presentations by the same person or firm, and previous history of presenters or topics that were not received favorably in previous years. Any changes had to be defended to the group and for each reprioritized presentation, one had to be dropped. A hold list was developed for presentations that were on the edge, those which could be better presented as a roundtable session or as a pre-Congress workshop. This sequence generated some interesting discussions. For the "reality TV" buffs, the process was a cross between "Survivor," Donald Trump's "Apprentice" and "American Idol." But by all measures ours was a much fairer process.

Next, the committee categorized the 105 top choices using the old "on your feet process" of placing the program titles (previously typed up on 3x5 sticky notes) on wall-mounted posters under their appropriate category. These were then reviewed to determine if there were redundant topics within the category, if one category had too many while another had too few, if there were new technologies that were not represented, if the topic warranted a repeat presentation, or if similar topics could be combined into one longer Super Session. At this point, "construction" of the program was almost complete—we handled any "change orders," did the "QC checks" and inspected the final product.

The next priority was to begin the surprisingly difficult task of scheduling the sessions into the designated time slots. Again, it was a balancing act to ensure that sessions within each category did not conflict with any related sessions from other categories (i.e., sewer and stormwater as related to combined sewers) and that each time slot was full. Adjustments were made throughout this process, all in the interest of providing a rewarding and balanced educational experience for the diversity of disciplines represented by our Congress attendees. From this point on, the fine-tuning and speaker communication were handled by staff.

  The CPR Committee in action

While the CPR Committee's work is very focused over a short period of time, it is very rewarding, both personally and professionally. The committee gets a snapshot of major legislative issues, projects, innovative processes and procedures, and administrative and management issues that are being addressed by public works organizations, consultants and suppliers across the nation and around the world. The Education Department has the process of sorting the data and preparing all the support spreadsheets and other documentation used by the CPR Committee down to a science. It was great to experience the enthusiasm of this group, the synergy of thought that was created, and the friendships that developed in the close quarters of the "war room" over the two days. Being able to be part of a dynamic group like this is another reason to be an active member in APWA.

Even though the Atlanta Congress program is now set, if you wish to present at the 2005 Congress in Minneapolis, I encourage you to submit your ideas now—the deadline is September 30. Submissions can be made online in a matter of moments. If you would like to serve on the CPR Committee forward your name to your chapter president. Our membership and their ideas are a very valuable asset and help make APWA the well-rounded organization that it is. The Atlanta Congress has been signed and sealed by the Congress Program Review Committee and ready for use by the membership!

Alan O'Brien served on the 2003 APWA Congress Program Review Committee and was chair of the 2004 APWA Congress Program Review Committee. He is past president of the New Mexico Chapter of APWA and is currently on the Membership Committee with the Arizona Chapter. He can be reached at (602) 553-8817 or at aobrien@gfnet.com.