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The New Normal and What it Means for Public Works

September 16, 2013

The New Normal and What it Means for Public Works

By Wayne Houle, City Engineer/DPW, APWA-MN

I recently attended the APWA International Congress in Chicago. The theme for this year’s congress was “Engineering Change.” How true this theme resounds with what we have experienced in the last few years and what we expect in the years to come.

We have all heard the term the “New Normal” from either the NBC sitcom that was recently canceled or maybe from the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota workshop on “Navigating the New Normal” that your City Council may have attended.

What does the “New Normal” mean to public works staff across the state? How exactly will we react to the “New Normal?” 

The “New Normal” for the City of Edina means that more 55 year olds and above are moving out of their single-family homes to rental or condominium units. This means a younger generation is moving in that expects and demands a higher level of service.

The “New Normal” for us means approaching infrastructure projects differently than we have in the past. We are now using a very robust public engagement process that is coupled with heavy emphasis on sustainability and collaboration.

So what is a robust public engagement process? 

The International Association for Public Participation has an excellent graphic that describes different levels of public participation for projects. The levels are Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, and Empower.

We all know that most public works projects will not get to a level of empowerment. Any of the levels prior to collaborate we use on a regular basis; we should all strive for the collaborate level whenever possible. Why? The “collaborate” level is where the public and the experts merge; previous levels are more to inform the public of what is happening and then taking comments on the solution. The “New Normal” will not accept this old way of doing business.

If you are a parent, think about your children’s education and how different it is compared to how we were taught. Our children are exposed to social media and the internet at a very young age--they can multi-task better than any of us combined. They have learned very early how to interact and collaborate on school projects. These are the children that are now becoming our residents and they demand to be involved in the planning of a project.

I predict that this new method of involving the public will only get easier as younger engineers become involved in our profession while bringing their collaborative experience with them.

The same public participation graphic can be incorporated into the workplace. Many times managers just inform staff of what is happening and do not ask for input. To have the trust of your peers and staff you need to work towards the empowerment column of the graph. This will bring success to your organization.

Our public information for projects has really grown over the years. Two years ago, we contracted with a public relations firm to perform a communications audit to see how we could better our communications with the public. To keep residents constantly informed of projects, we make contact with them about two years prior to the project start date, then every 60-days or less, until the project begins. Then we inform residents through a weekly informational email and an occasional mailing. In addition, we provide project construction--specific pages on the city’s website and updates through social media. We also have changed our writing style to be friendlier and less technical.   

Another “New Normal” is working toward creating a sustainable environment. As great stewards of public infrastructure, we are designing for future generations. Our designs need to be sustainable so that future generations can focus on other priorities.

The one area of design that we all struggle with is regulatory requirements, since many regulatory agencies have too many competing requirements. For instance, the watershed districts require that only so much surface water from an event can leave the site. The remaining water should then be infiltrated or used for irrigation. Our city obtains its water from below ground and the configuration of our well fields does not allow us to infiltrate in many areas due to influence to the adjacent well. So what do you do with the extra surface water?

The “New Normal” process includes a holistic approach that takes into account all elements. This process concludes with a solution that meets all demands. A great tool that incorporates sustainability and public engagement is the Envision rating system that the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure has produced.

The “New Normal” also needs to involve the younger public works professionals of the organization. No longer will we be able to spend as much time training younger professionals or making them “serve their time.” In the competitive world that we live in we cannot afford to have underutilized staff.

The “New Normal” in public works will be able to figure out how to make this work so that in main areas like  project planning and construction we will be able to use the new way of thinking that the younger professionals bring to the organization.

As we all proceed into this “New Normal” we will be attacking and completing projects differently than any of us had ever thought possible. The exciting part of these processes and the final outcomes will be how we are still able to better the quality of life of society.

So let’s look at the “New Normal” not as something to fear, but something to embrace in our profession.

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