Building a better future

John Ostrowski
Management Consultant
Vancouver, Washington

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Your likely answer is that you're an optimist. Most successful people in public works are optimists. We have a reputation for getting things done and overcoming obstacles. Why, then, do we act like pessimists when we organize ourselves into groups and form positions on the issues that we face?

The difference between being an optimist or a pessimist is more than just a question about personality types or approaches to life. It's at the heart of leadership. Marcus Buckingham in his book The One Thing You Need to Know defines leadership as having a vision of a better future and the ability to communicate that vision in a way that attracts followers. He points out that a pessimist can't be a leader because a pessimist can't see a better future.

Okay, all you optimists out there, what is the public works profession's vision of a better future? What have we been saying over and over again for the last 30 or 40 years? We've been saying that America is in ruins; that our infrastructure is failing; and that no matter how much money our elected officials scrape together for us, it's never enough. A few months ago we got to look at a report card that told us that the nation's public works systems are, in general, getting worse. The Leadership and Management Committee has been examining this question of leadership for some time now. What we're finding is that there are a lot of great leaders out there in the public works world but that we haven't taken that role when it comes to defining how things can be better. We've chosen to forecast how things can get worse.

We can't continue to be viewed as pessimists because we have some vital information on how to make this a better world and we need people to listen to us rather than writing us off as doomsayers. For all the whining we've done for so many years about the crumbling world around us, many things have actually gotten better and most people haven't seen the system-wide failure we've been predicting for so many years. If we went to Dr. Phil and told him what we'd been up to and that we didn't understand why we aren't listened to even though we keep bringing up the crumbling infrastructure scenario over and over again, he'd ask us one question: "How's that working for you?"

The answer is that it's not working very well. We must be crazy because we keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I don't think we're crazy but I do think we've never seriously looked at our approach and taken responsibility for its lack of effectiveness.

What's the alternative? What we need to do is fill the void in leadership and take responsibility for painting a picture of what a better future can look like if we take full advantage of the knowledge and skills of public works professionals across America. I think there are thousands of public works leaders out there who have been successful at being leaders in their respective communities. I think many of you have tackled the difficult problem of creating a vision for a better future.

This isn't easy but we've tried the easy way so let's see if we can tackle the hard stuff now. One way to develop a picture of a better future might be to describe what happens if we're allowed to do all the things that we've been asking for. We've described how doing a proper job of asset management can lead to lower costs over the lifecycle of our systems. The problem is that we've had to ask for more money up front so that we can spend less in the long run. That always sounds good but usually we get less money than we asked for and the long-term savings don't really materialize. Painting the picture of a better future in that case is especially difficult because it means describing future costs and budgets that are difficult to relate to as we discuss them today.

Maybe we could talk about how the world would look if we got approval to apply best management practices to their fullest extent. But we have to be careful describing our ideal world because much of what we're talking about is efficiency. Efficiency is cold. It's hard and it has sharp edges. It represents the kind of science fiction world that I don't want to live in.

Before you think I've fallen into the trap of pessimism I need to share something with you. I've always thought that my inherent pessimism made me an optimist because things never turn out as badly as I think they will and I act accordingly. So even though I've identified some of the problems with painting a picture of a better future I think it can be done.

I said earlier that I think many of you have already tackled this problem and I'd like you to share what you've come up with. What I'm going to do is to take a shot at a quick description of what a better future might look like and then I'm going to ask you to critique it and also possibly share your own versions that have worked for you.

My better future looks like this: First, every community in America is served by one or more well-trained public works professionals who are certified as being up-to-date in the best methods of providing public service. All of the nation's water systems provide clean and plentiful (but not wasteful) supplies of water to every citizen and business. Waste is kept to a minimum and sewage treatment plants turn out cleaner water than can be found in nature. Natural systems are used wherever possible to control and treat stormwater. Transportation systems provide easy access to work and play for all of our communities. Mass transit is used where it can most efficiently move large numbers of people between major activity centers. People use highways in modern, minimally-polluting vehicles for those trips that cannot be accomplished by mass transit. Recreational areas are clean and safe and available to a diverse population. The air is clean and the water is safe for public use. Medical services have been reduced to provide only treatment for bruised and scratched arms that are the result of people constantly pinching themselves because they can't believe how good life is.

Maybe I got carried away but maybe I didn't go far enough. It's your job to tell me how close I came. Or, it's your job to tell me what you've done to describe a better future and how that's worked for you.

Send your comments/submittals to me at and maybe your entry will turn up in an article later this year to present what response we get to this article.