An effective public works public service oriented

William A. Sterling
Public Works Director
City of Greeley, Colorado
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has published the brochure entitled "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure is based on a survey of public works officials and those who employ them to determine the most important characteristics of an effective public works leader. These "Baker's Dozen" core competencies help public works professionals recognize and develop leadership talent. Included in this issue is the seventh in our series of core competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

"Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you've done the best of which you are capable." - John Wooden, Hall of Fame basketball coach for UCLA

As a profession, public works is undoubtedly one of the oldest in the world, predating the pyramids. Outstanding, intelligent, dedicated public works officials have served humanity as long as people have congregated in cities instead of in caves. One of the most famous of the early public works officials was Sextus Julius Frontinus, a water resource superintendent, who was appointed "curator aquarium" (water commissioner) to the City of Rome in AD 97.

While the field of public works has been around for a long time, the general public has not elevated the profession to the extent of other professions. In the public works profession, praise mostly comes from within; the reward is the satisfaction for a "job well done." Expect no applause and very little recognition. This fault should not discourage the aspiring public works official, since the rewards for dedicated public service far outweigh the lack of public acclaim. Personal job satisfaction and pride in accomplishment—a river bridged, a canal constructed, a drainage problem solved, a better water source developed, an unsanitary sewage condition eliminated—give deep and lasting satisfaction.

No other position in city or county government depends so completely on a wide variety of experience as does that of the public works director. Why is it, then, that public works rarely receives recognition for its contributions to our society? Most likely it is because the functions of public works are carried out so efficiently and quietly that one does not know of these vital contributions, until they no longer function.

With a profession that is so fraught with a lack of recognition, an unending list of problems to solve and a limitation on resources, why would anyone aspire to work in the public sector? As I prepared to write this article, I reflected upon my involvement in the public sector. My personal reasons include:

  • Variety
  • Challenges
  • Decision making
  • Project/program development
  • Interaction
  • Ability to make a difference

In my opinion, no other position in city or county government depends so completely on a wide variety of experience as does the public works director. In my particular case, over the course of my public career, I have had jurisdiction in the following major areas: facilities maintenance; transit services; engineering/construction; street/utilities maintenance; traffic operations; cemetery; sanitary sewage collection; equipment maintenance; water distribution; and animal control.

Each of these areas has a unique set of problems, challenges, and opportunities. Sometimes being a public works director is a lot like being a person afflicted with Alzheimer's disease; each day is a new day with its own set of issues. In addition to the variety of responsibilities and problems, the physical setting provides variety—from the office to the field, from a variety of unending meetings, to city council presentations.

In an urban complex a public works director is responsible for such infrastructure duties as maintaining streets and clearing them of snow so that traffic can move safely; providing storm drains that prevent flooding; providing potable water; designing and installing traffic control; and performing the multitude of other tasks that allow an urban complex to exist. With this much variety, a director, while focusing on an individual area when necessary, must keep an eye on the big picture while utilizing competent staff.

In my position I must frequently render operating decisions, making professional and sometimes political judgments concerning my areas of jurisdictions. Sometimes these decisions will affect other departments, so coordination is paramount. Those decisions could also directly affect the citizens.

Always facing the public works director is the challenge to do more with less. While growth and its demand on services are increasing, resources to provide those services at current levels are not. As a director, we have been asked to do more and more with less and less for so long that we are approaching the premise that we can do everything with nothing. Sound familiar?

Someone once summed up the difference between a manager and a leader as follows: "A manager does things right; the leader does the right things." The challenge is to be and do both and to recognize in which mode you need to be.

With aging infrastructure, aging equipment, workplace diversity, increasing infrastructure needs, regulations, and diminishing resources, every day is a challenge—or as some of my colleagues say, an "opportunity."

Decision making
If you like to be in a position of making decisions (assuming most decisions made are correct), the field of public works is for you. Every decision you make affects your employees, the everyday life of your citizens, and the credibility of your department. In this business, you must solve your citizens' problems fairly and individually while maintaining consistency and equality. Decision making requires dynamics of leadership, communication, analytical skills, and foresight. How do you do this consistently? By applying personal experience and hiring competent staff. When I was a young engineer and drafting by hand (yes, before CADD, we drew our designs by hand), we would say, "Don't do any more in the morning than you can't erase in the afternoon." Today we can't fall back on that premise. All of our decisions have to be timely, efficient, and correct.

Project/program development
The public works director is in a position to effect change. From planning to design, from construction to maintenance, you have the ability to provide a service to your community. I have a well-balanced career in the public sector and in the private consulting sector. As a consultant, I could certainly design a project or develop a program. I could even be a part of the construction process. As a director, I can be involved in all these disciplines. To see my dreams come to fruition, to see my staff grow professionally and to serve my citizens are personal rewards.

Earlier, I mentioned the interaction required of my position. Not only do you have to interact with a variety of employees, citizens, and elected officials, you must interact with a myriad of outside agencies such as county, state, and federal agencies, all of which affect your department, sometimes negatively.

This interaction is a major challenge in the public service. President Harry Truman once said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." If you can't stand the interaction, become a monk.

Ability to make a difference
While I could list many other reasons, I would say my last personal reason, and probably the most important, is the ability to make a difference. The ability to make a difference in the development of a stormwater utility to fund stormwater problems; the ability to construct a major arterial roadway where none existed before; the ability to cooperate with a variety of agencies to accomplish a needed addition to our community's infrastructure; the ability to revitalize our downtown area; and the ability to develop a team to provide the citizens with cost-effective services in a responsive manner represent a few examples. A related area of satisfaction is the ability to assist others in their dedication to public service.

The ability to recognize, work on, and solve problems is our personal reward. The problem may be as minor as traffic calming in older neighborhoods, as difficult as maintaining the city's public buildings, or as complex as securing federal or state grants to construct a major highway or bridge. These are some of the reasons I chose the public sector over the private sector.

"If you care for it with a passion, what you are doing becomes a labor of love. You can look up from your work at the clock and see it's nine at night and not say, 'Oh my God, it's nine. I should have left here four hours ago.'" - Tom Jordan, Owner, Jordan Vineyards

William A. Sterling can be reached at (970) 350-9795 or at

Core Competencies at a Glance

Possesses Integrity
Is Accountable
Is Decisive
Is Public Service Oriented
Empowers Others
Is Deliberate
Is a Communicator
Shows Respect for Others
Is Technically Knowledgeable
Manages Resources
Is Resilient
Maintains Balance