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Mar. 3, 2017: Public Works.com

Achieving Success Through Leading People, Setting Goals, And Measuring Performance In Public Works

By Jeffrey M. Thurman, CPM
Florida APWA Leadership & Management Technical Committee Chair, Consultant

Leadership and management are commonly used to describe successful directors, managers, or supervisors within the field of public works. Yet, these terms are often defined differently. Some take the stance that they are extreme opposites — even arguing that to be successful, one has to be either a leader or manager exclusively. Others see these skill sets as synonyms, using them interchangeably. Still others position themselves somewhere in the middle, with the belief that success comes through the fundamental application of both disciplines, dependent upon the need and circumstance.

This article discusses the skills and abilities needed to successfully lead people, set organizational goals, and measure performance within a public works agency. It will compare and contrast leadership and management, discuss the use and value of setting organizational goals, as well as show how to monitor these goals to measure success. Further, the needed skills and aptitudes to meet current and future expectations will also be outlined.

Though there are several leadership theories, most center on the narrative that leadership is the "influencing, motivating, and enabling [of] others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of [which] they are members" (McShane and Glinow, 2010). The effective use of leadership principles by an agency's director, managers, and supervisors will motivate employees through the communication of current and future goals and the vision cast by the leader. The proactive application of these principles will allow an organization to adapt to ever-changing internal and external influences. Internal influences could be budget constraints or generational diversity. External influences could present themselves through an increase in environmental regulations or an increase in expectations for customers. Peter Northouse, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Communication in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University, said "Good leadership skills seek to shape ideas, motivate people and help provide options for the future" (Northouse, 2013).

The effective application of the foundational management skills of planning, organizing, scheduling, and controlling by a manager can assist in an organization's and manager's success. The use of these skills allows one to set and communicate priorities, provide direction in the execution of assignments, and measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. The effective application of these foundational skills by leaders will assist an organization through providing clear direction and communicating expectations.

Both disciplines require people to work together and use their influence towards the accomplishment of goals and meeting expectations. As public works agencies continue to adapt to limited resources and adhere to every increasing accountability, each discipline will be needed for the achievement of success.

Setting Organizational Goals

Planning, organizing, and prioritizing work (APWA, 2008) includes developing specific goals and strategies for accomplishing the organization's mission. Each element plays a vital role in the success of the leader and organization.

The planning effort involves determining major activities and functions, defining methods and determining needed resources, as well as calculating the level of effort that will be needed to accomplish each activity and function. Ultimately, the planning effort determines the amount of work to be performed with given resources and established levels of effort. This establishes a baseline to compare against when setting goals.

The second element, organizing, further divides the work into time-based units such as monthly or quarterly periods. This allows the work to be identified by activity and resource requirements (labor, equipment, and materials) for each time period. The advantage to this element is that it allows managers and supervisors to continually monitor the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization, allowing for quick "course correction" if problems are discovered.

The element of scheduling requires the directing and prioritizing of work efforts, as well as scheduling efforts on a short-term basis, normally bi-weekly. This also includes the potential coordination of efforts with others and obtaining consensus with employees to work as a team, while motivating subordinates, using and setting performance standards and monitoring performance (Liff, 2007).

Further, compiling and documenting performance and user information requires observing, receiving, confirming, and obtaining information from various sources and then analyzing the information (Gray& Hoel, 1992). This effort will lead to identifying the underlying principles, trends, or facts of information to make informed decisions, evaluating and determining the best solution amongst alternatives. Coaching and developing employees requires identifying their needs and any possible lack of background or training, then coaching, mentoring, or directing those employees to improve their knowledge or skills. This teambuilding and development must be done with mutual trust, respect, and cooperation (Lift, 2007).

Measuring Success

Management skills are necessary to plan levels of service, estimate the cost of work processes and budgets, determine the resource needs of an agency, establish schedules for both people and equipment, as well as to provide tools to monitor performance and service delivery. In a public works agency, some examples of performance measures include determining the cost of mowing an acre of shoulder, the time it takes to respond to a downed stop sign, or the labor effort to patch a pothole. These measures then can be benchmarked against historical data as well as like agencies who perform the same activity.

Measuring and estimating the quantifiable characteristics of service, such as accomplishment, time expended, resources, or materials used and productivity to perform a work activity is crucial in setting goals, benchmarking accomplishment, and costing — all in an effort to measure success. This includes interpreting information for others, as well as translating or explaining what that information indicates and how it can be utilized to make decisions (Osborne & Gaebler, 1993).

Monitoring and controlling resources is a part of the technical skills and requires the reviewing of all utilized resources for amounts such as labor, equipment, materials, accomplishment and cost in dollars, and comparing to the desired results. This information must be communicated with employees, customers, and citizens (Michel, 2004).

Determining compliance with standards and mandates is another aspect of this skillset and includes using relevant information to determine whether events or processes comply with federal laws, regulations, or standards as well as state, regional, and local requirements. It also includes requirements such as traffic sign placement using the state traffic manual or permit requirements mandated by the regional water management district.

Skills For The Future

Public works agencies have been dramatically affected by the advancement and implementation of technology, with many manual and mechanical systems being replaced by electronic systems, automation, cloud-based technology, and computers. The use and advancement in technology such as smart phones, geographical information systems (GIS), social media, faster computers, and real-time systems monitoring and equipment has dramatically influenced how services are delivered and maintenance is achieved in the last decade. These trends are expected to continue into the future, impacting public works agencies.

Over time, in many agencies, employees have climbed the ladder of success to key leadership roles in their organizations; yet, unfortunately, they have not kept current with the changes in technological advancements or best management practices. Whether the leaders have these skills themselves or have staff that possess these competencies, continuous learning and exposure to technological advances and best management practices will be needed. These competencies will be needed to meet desired performance expectations, both now and into the future.

Regardless of where one finds themselves in an organization, they will need to apply the disciplines of leadership and management, in addition to remaining current with advances in technology. With the successful use of leadership principles, public works leaders and managers have the ability to provide clear direction to employees, while influencing them to accept established procedures through open communications and transparency. In addition, through the application of key elements of management, processes can be established to plan effort and budgets, organize resources to accomplish the plan, schedule and assign people, equipment, contracts, and materials, as well as establish systems to monitor accomplishment and productivity. Lastly, through continuous learning and exposure to technological advances and best management practices, leaders and managers will have the ability and tools needed for effective problem-solving to meet desired performance expectations.


APWA (American Public Works Association). (2008). Public works administration. Kansas City, Missouri: American Public Works Association

Gray, G. & Hoel, L. (1992). Public transportation (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Liff, S. (2007). Managing government employees: How to motivate your people, deal with difficult issues, and achieve tangible results. AMACOM Division American Mgmt. Assn.

McShane, S. L., & Young, V. G. (2010). Organizational behavior: Emerging knowledge and practice for the real world. Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Michel, G. (2004). Cost Analysis and Activity Based Costing for Government. Chicago IL: Government Finance Officers Association.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Sage Publications.

Osborne, D., & Gaebler T. (1992). Reinventing government: How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

About the Author

Jeff Thurman is a Consultant with LA Consulting, Inc. and can be reached at jthurman@laconsulting.com. LA Consulting, Inc. is a Manhattan Beach, California-based management consulting firm, established in 1993, which provides a wide variety of planning, systems, and technology services applied to public agencies and municipalities with an emphasis on systems implementation and technical support for public works operations and maintenance.

Return to: 2017 Feature Stories