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Communication & Partnerships Enhance Service Delivery

Kyle Leonard

Reducing staffing levels has been a common theme in local governments generally, and certainly in public works departments specifically, during the past 5-10 years. Even at public works departments where staffing levels have remained constant, infrastructure, and infrastructure maintenance requirements likely have increased.

Although the mantra in local government has been to “do more with less” for some time now, there are core principles that an efficient and responsive Public Works Department can rely on to serve its community well. While it is tempting on the part of Public Works personnel to assume that increases in staff would solve most operational issues, the reality is that there are limits on local government’s ability to fund increases in permanent staff. For that reason, Public Works Leaders implement operational practices that enhance the utilization of current resources, implement force multipliers where possible, and ensure that current personnel are as knowledgeable and widely trained as is practicable.

Jurupa Valley City Hall

Jurupa Valley City Hall

George A. Wentz, PE, serves as Vice President in the Governmental Services Business Line of HR Green, and has overseen the provision of planning, building safety, community development, water quality, and public works services to more than 20 cities and counties throughout California. His unique experience and perspective can help public officials understand how best to operate and supervise their public works departments, or look toward a partnership with a private consultant who can share new insights and best practices that can increase efficiency and save money.

Wentz works for HR Green as the Assistant City Leader for the City of Jurupa Valley, California. In Jurupa Valley, he reduced operational costs by approximately 35 percent; shrank transition costs from County to City services by about 25 percent and costs in permit processing, and inspection fees to applicants were reduced an estimated 20 – 35 percent due to shorter turnaround times and lower costs.

Wentz says it is vitally important for leaders to focus on these core tenets for a Public Works Department:

  • Care of public right-of-way: Public Works Departments are relied upon to assure that assets owned by government are properly cared for and safe.
  • Responsiveness: Public Works Departments need to properly schedule work and respond to repair requests from the public and community leaders in a timely manner.
  • Cost effectiveness: In today’s world, many departments are called upon to do more with less. This demands that they evaluate how services are delivered to assure that all work is done in the best and most cost effective manner.

Public Works Leaders, of course, need to understand the basics of street repair, but Wentz says the best Public Works Leaders he knows plan, organize, direct, monitor and control work performance. In order to translate policy into action, these leaders have plans in place. The forward thinking plans are products of leadership, technical expertise and experience, awareness of customer needs, knowledge of infrastructure (in terms of location as well as maintenance requirements), staff capabilities, and other factors.

“The ability to deal effectively with the public and having good people skills is vital,” said Wentz. “A good Public Works Leader knows how to motivate his team and optimize performance.”
Of course with the pressure now on smaller staffs leaders must work smarter and Wentz emphasizes that utilizing some form of a work management system is vital to success.

“Gone are the days when you send crews out to ‘find’ work to be done or reporting in the morning and determining what is important that day. Work must be identified in advance and planned out so that all know the priorities,” said Wentz.

Public Works Leaders are recognizing that planning ahead and being proactive in caring for the public assets owned, actually saves money in the long run.
He has noticed Public Works Leaders getting better at planning ahead. Budgetary constraints are forcing the issue. But, these smart leaders are recognizing that planning ahead and being proactive in caring for the public assets owned, actually saves money in the long run.

Wentz paraphrasing a famous quote says, “Those who don’t plan and say it cannot be done are usually passed by those who are doing it.”

One of the key tools to being more effective is the proper use of technology. “Technology is our friend,” Wentz said. Public Works Leaders may know every nook and cranny in their community and be willing to put in extra hours to serve their constituents but they still need to find ways to work smarter and not harder. Public Works Departments should use available technology to their advantage. For instance Geographical Information System (GIS) for office personnel to track permits and encroachments can save staff time and fuel costs. This technology also benefits local government staff by enabling them to visually track everything they are dealing with throughout the community.

Using the same GIS database structure as the foundation, the HR Green team has developed a lightweight, easy-to-use mobile application to further increase efficiencies in the field. This mobile app is much more than a map showing where an inspector is or needs to be. Inspectors can record data in the field, take photos and review old files. The inspector can update everything regarding a property while in the field.

“Not all technology is advantageous but you should use technology to your advantage,” said Wentz.

Vitally important in a Public Works Leader’s job description is the safety of his or her employees. Cost cutting can impact training and safety practices.

“A Public Works Leader must insist upon regular training to promote internal safety practices and then apply those practices in the field. Caution and anticipation is the best answer to avoid unsafe conditions. Be practical and think before you act. Anticipate what the public sees and how they will react to maintenance activities being conducted by work crews,” said Wentz.

In addition, communication both external and internal can prevent small issues from becoming big problems. Communication impacts performance. Customer service means solid communication which in turn impacts maintenance programs. A good rule of thumb is to always communicate – whether good or bad from the public’s perspective. It is better to err on the side of effective communication than to assume an issue will go away. The Wentz rule: “Use good judgment in all situations – and communicate.”

In order to translate policy into action, leaders need to have plans in place. These plans are products of leadership, technical expertise and experience, awareness of customer needs, knowledge of infrastructure, staff capabilities, and other factors. There are times when a fresh perspective can improve operations and effectiveness. HR Green has experience in both organizational review as well as operation of entire public works departments which allows our experts to work with a municipality to improve its operations.

To learn more about how we can assist your community, contact George Wentz at 714.287.2275 or e-mail him at gwentz@hrgreen.com

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