Accreditation Success

Patricia Biegler, P.E.
Public Works Director
City of Chesapeake, Virginia
Member, APWA Top Ten Review Committee

December 15, 1997 was a historic day for APWA's accreditation program. On that day the City of Greeley, CO and the Village of Schaumburg, IL became the first two accredited agencies in North America. In the past ten years, an additional 37 agencies, making a current total of 39, have joined the ranks, with 37 in the United States and two in Canadian provinces.

Throughout 2007, accredited agencies, their staff members, evaluators, and elected officials will be sharing their experiences with the program. The fourth article in the series is presented below. For more information about the program, contact Ann Daniels at adaniels@apwa.net or (816) 595-5223, or visit the website at www.apwa.net/About/Accreditation/.

Last August, the Chesapeake, Virginia Department of Public Works was the 38th agency in North America to receive accreditation from the American Public Works Association. It was a proud event for us all, and a real milestone in the transformation of our organization. If you are considering applying for accreditation, I encourage you to do so. The self-assessment process and the resulting transformation have made us a better, more efficient and more self-confident organization. The end result is gratifying, but it was the process that had the most impact on our organization.

Don't get me wrong. The organization was doing a lot of good things before the process started, but they were separate actions, processes and systems that lacked cohesiveness. The puzzle pieces didn't quite fit together.

Nearly four years ago, the senior leadership in Public Works met for a day-long, offsite work session. We reviewed the tasks in the Public Works Management Practices Manual to see where we stood against a national standard. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had some level of compliance on about 92% of nearly 400 tasks.

This self-assessment also showed us where we needed to focus our efforts, specifically in the area of strategic planning. While I had small pieces of the Strategic Planning section (Chapter 1) in place, I had not brought the organization far enough along to have all of the elements of the strategic plan in place.

There was enough good news to inspire the group and, at the end of the day, they voted unanimously to apply for accreditation and move from simple assessment to a full commitment. I was concerned that we were taking on too much, too soon, but the group was adamant.

The sweet feeling of success! Our staff photo in front of City Hall after we received the accreditation.

The next step was putting all the pieces in place, which meant taking each process and procedure, writing it down, clarifying, questioning, and evaluating. The most important element, and one I encourage you to foster in your staff, was communicating with each other. We looked for ways to interact, track and improve. Those that didn't have a major, direct involvement in the chapter tasks served on the policy and procedures committees, learning much about the rest of the organization and gaining respect for each other. Again, we gained as much from the process as the end result.

Our original plan called for us to wrap things up and have our site visit in April 2006. We couldn't quite make that deadline so we extended our work time and rescheduled for August. Even then, we were late submitting all the paperwork to APWA. But they were patient, helpful and encouraging, and we finally received the review team in mid-August.

The Chesapeake team, every one of us, was under tremendous stress during those review sessions, but our hard work paid off even more than we expected. Chesapeake not only became the 38th agency to achieve accreditation, we are also the very first to be rated fully compliant on every single task. That achievement, that victory, is truly sweet, but what is truly important are the benefits we gained as a team as we struggled through the process itself. A few of the best benefits included:

  1. A team that has moved beyond being coworkers to a group that understands synergy and took full advantage of it.

  2. A huge boost in confidence and morale. It's difficult to compare your organization to others. We just don't have that much time to interact with other cities, and we're too focused on our shortcomings. The accreditation review put our staff and our work in front of people who know City work and have visited other cities. To have people like this point out all the things you're doing right and work that is outstanding, different and effective is a real boost.

  3. Efficiency. There is a real efficiency to having a structure. You know who does what, how they do it, and why they do it. For most tasks, you don't spin your wheels trying to figure out who, why, how, etc. There is also an efficiency that's been created by the sheer process of writing down the process. As you discuss, analyze and write, you discover the dead ends, pointless processes and duplicative procedures, and eliminate them. Lastly, once the process is transparent to everyone, the efficiency spreads and new employees can be integrated into the whole much more easily. Optimism replaces frustration.

I would recommend this effort for any public works organization looking to move forward to improve and with people willing to invest the effort. I asked my staff to list the benefits of being accredited and here are some of their responses.

  1. To have all of the policies and procedures
  2. To have them in one consolidated location
  3. Respect of City Manager's office and City Council
  4. Respect of peers throughout the country
  5. Pride instilled in employees
  6. Having policies and procedures up-to-date

APWA Board member Noel Thompson (behind lectern) presents the accreditation award to Chesapeake Mayor Dalton S. Edge. Bruce Pitre and Ali Asgharpour, Accreditation Manager, look on.

"The Public Works team took pride in facing the challenges of recognizing the shortfalls and proposing creative and corrective measures in completing every one of the nearly 400 recommended practice statements," said civil engineer Ali Asgharpour.

Eric Martin, City Engineer, summed it up this way: "The accreditation team identified two of our policies as model practices: public communications and growth management. We do these things well, but it's nice to be recognized and know the model can be used by others. We are all so busy working on improving the organization we don't realize how good we have become!"

Patricia Biegler was named one of APWA's Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year in 2002. She can be reached at (757) 382-6290 or pbiegler@mail.city.chesapeake.va.us.