IPSI – Public Works Management Training that Works!

I just returned from spending a week at the Illinois Public Service Institute – "a three-year training program which provides instruction expressly designed for public service professionals." Since this is my second year of the three-year program, I thought it would be a good time to share my experiences with others who might be considering attending in the future. I don't know how other professions handle training of their managers, but in public works, those of us who advance up the ladder rarely receive formal training to prepare us for our new supervisory roles. Some agencies send managers to an occasional class, and some might have personnel who have taken public administration classes. But rarely does this type of training really prepare people for handling the public works industry. It just doesn't fit the traditional public works place, so if you haven't worked it, you won't get it. Fortunately 12 years ago, the Illinois and Chicago Metro chapters of APWA decided to fill this training gap by setting up IPSI. The result has been effective supervisory training for public works managers by public works professionals that just works.

Before I attended last year, I'd heard all the stories about how wonderful and amazing IPSI was. Frankly I was skeptical. You know how it is – you've been to all those classes that promise to miraculously transform you into a management superhero. But in the end, most of what you learn just doesn't work in the public works environment. Not only don't they understand how we are set up and how we deliver services, but they don't get the structure within which we work which presents specific types of challenges. IPSI is different because the content is approved by a committee of public works professionals and delivered by Dr. Lew Bender – an educator with extensive experience in training managers in the public service sector (and who is assisted by his amazing wife, Mary).

Last year was my first of the three year program. The focus for the 2012 class was on service excellence. Some of the highlights of the training were:

Performance appraisals – we learned how to conduct them to ensure the maximum benefit for everyone. We also learned how to work within the current appraisal framework we have if we were not allowed to change it.

Business etiquette – Maybe other people get the "Miss Manners" training at home, but my parents were simple folk who never taught us what all that silverware on the table was for and what order in which to use it. Fortunately for me and others who lacked this training, this session took care of filling us in on the details. By the end we were more aware of the entire process of conducting business over a meal along with other business etiquette knowledge. 

Communication, law, and the service culture – for the law portion of this group of sessions, we had an attorney visit to fill us in on important laws that affect our work. That's another aspect of our jobs we are rarely trained in yet are expected to just know and understand so it was good to get this information. 

Workplace safety – this was a great session that showed us how to try to avoid and if necessary respond to a threat. Although I'm thinking I'd really rather not have to put any of this training into practice.

So this year's focus was on supervisory skills – here are some of the highlights I took away:

Supervisory Dos and Don'ts – the committee along with Lew, the instructor, shared about 50 pieces of advice. The top three for me that I decided I need to build on were

  1. ensuring people know and understand expectations
  2. allowing people to develop skills through failure and risk (non-safety related) and remembering to debrief afterwards
  3. developing a vision and a few goals for our team as a group

More legal stuff – the lawyer was back this year to explain ADA, FMLA, and workplace investigations. The scariest thing I learned is for some reason the law makes supervisors personally liable for FMLA if acting in the best interest of the employer and if in violation of the FMLA law. This makes it even more important to understand this confusing law – ignore it, and you can get personally hit by it. Not that this makes it any simpler to understand, but I did find a presentation that shows some of these issues:


Managing Problem Employees (or problem children – PCs) – PCs are always a favorite topic because it seems too many people have some of these folks working for them. Some surprising information I got from the class was that PCs can take up a rough average of 40 to 75% of a manager's time. It was also uncanny how closely Lew described their behaviors – almost as if he knew the people personally. The most enlightening thing I learned was that PCs think of work as some type of fight for the "pie." If they actually perform some task you give them, it's like allowing you to take part of their pie. So they do whatever it takes to make sure they get your part rather than give up theirs. I had always thought everyone was thinking:  this is work, we have tasks to complete, and we do them. Now it makes so much more sense – it's not about work at all to them. It's all about guarding their pie.

Social media and public works – this session was facilitated by myself and Dave Lawry. We focused on opening discussions over the use of social media in our industry by having the group analyze two incidents related to municipalities that played out on social media. We also discussed the type of messages we typically send out and looked at a few examples of how other agencies are using social media platforms to communicate. This could probably have been an all day session that started out with an introduction to social media. For anyone who is looking for a fun introduction to social media, I embedded something I put together a few years ago – keep in mind some of the sites might have minor design changes:


More performance appraisal information and stress (not necessarily tied together)

Successful communication and employee loyalty – this was a full day session with Doug Cartland. If anyone has seen him talk, you understand how completely motivational and interesting this day was for us.

Strategic Planning – I am absolutely fascinated by this topic and in understanding how teams work together in planning. What was particularly interesting in this session was how I could relate it to conducting this type of exercise in a virtual setting. Most of the issues that hijack a strategic planning session are easily knocked out of the way by instead conducting the planning in a virtual setting. Of course we didn't have that choice here – totally face to face.


So those were the session highlights for me. But there is one other significant part to IPSI you won't get from the class schedule – the people. It really hit me this year as soon as I walked in and lasted until the minute I left. There is a closeness and bonding that takes place during the entire week that I'm not sure is obvious at first. It kind of sneaks up on you without you realizing it is happening. All the shared experiences in class, the jokes, the fun, the learning, the sharing of ideas and challenges, and the sharing of meals and time together build relationships and bonds we would not otherwise have. In the end for me, that's a priceless gift I hope I never take for granted. Because of it, we no longer feel alone or that we have to face our battles without help. We may be urged in class to constantly think "what hill we want to die on," but once we choose, we go there knowing we won't be rushing the hill alone.

Lindberg Rd Reconstruction LaSalle IL


Using Social Media to Communicate Emergency Response


Yesterday Dave Lawry and I presented Using Social Media to Communicate Emergency Response at the 2013 APWA North Amercian Snow Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was fun to give the presentation with Dave because he had some interesting first-hand experiences with implementing social media as a communication tool, particularly during snow operations. His stories came from when he was serving as the Director of Public Works for the city of Elgin in Ill. – some of what they had done has been covered by this blog over the years.

APWA North American Snow Conference Session

About a year or so ago, Dave moved on to take a position with Chastain and Associates. But even though he is no longer with a city, he continues to encourage and help others in local government with figuring out how best to implement the use of social media. Today Dave led a roundtable discussion at the conference to further explore the topic and share thoughts. He sent me an email and said, "The followup round table was well attended today with two from the class yesterday wishing to continue the discussion. My table was full." Even though I would have liked to attend, I had to return to Illinois because of other commitments so missed the discussion, but I am sure based on the questions we got yesterday it was helpful and informative.

Fortunately I'll be able to work again with Dave in the Fall when we discuss Social Media and Public Works at the 12th Annual Public Service Institute on Oct. 8, 2013, in Effingham, Ill. Our presentation will be given as part of IPSI – a leadership and management program held each year for one week in Illinois. The entire program, which focuses primarily on public works, spans a three-year time period. Last year was my first year of training, and I plan to return this year not only to help Dave with the social media session, but also to go for my second year as a student. As anyone who has attended will tell you, the highlights of the program are Lewis and Mary Bender – the two incredible people who are responsible for organizing and hosting the whole event. Lew also teaches most of the sessions. If you haven't gone yet, I highly recommend you consider going. Just meeting Lew and being able to learn from his years of wisdom makes it all worth it by itself. But the added benefit is you'll also be able to network with and learn from other public works people from all over Illinois. It's really one of the few training opportunities we have for learning how to manage in the unique setting in which we all work. And I'm sure as part of our session at IPSI, Dave and I will be able to further explore the use of social media as a communication tool during emergencies. (Note that I am no longer with the employer shown on the schedule – I've since accepted a position with another governmental agency.)

But for now, you can view the presentation we gave yesterday here:



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Days 68 & 69

Days 68 & 69

After spending most of the day yesterday in meetings, getting home late, then having to run out to attend a band concert, I decided just to wait until today and post both yesterday and today in one article. So here it is!


IDOT audit of ARRA project

IDOT was scheduled to be in this morning to audit my paperwork for the last ARRA project the city completed in 2010. They, along with the FHWA, have already looked everything over several times and have always been very helpful. They were scheduled to be here at 9 so I had made plans to be out of the office the rest of the day after 11 thinking two hours would be enough time, but they ended up not being able to get here until after 10:30. So I couldn't be here while they were going through everything. And because I am still waiting for the last authorization to be approved, I couldn't really finish all the paperwork, so they will have to come back anyway one more time. I guess at least this way, I can be here next time so in case they can't find the information they need in my records, I can find it for them.

APWA – Detention Pond Design

The rest of the day was spent attending a talk by the APWA about detention areas. Someone from a suburb in the Chicago area shared their experiences with building natural ponds. They said in the early 1990s a lot of mistakes were made in building these facilities, and now there's a lot of maintenance and performance issues. Many have just turned into a huge pile of weeds needing a lot of work. Their community has been systematically renovating the ponds to improve their functions. And she said they are working now to avoid any problems with new ponds that are proposed by developers.

She brought up a lot of interesting and helpful tips about pond design. One included making sure an ecologist checks the seed list. She said they have seed lists submitted that contain weeds and seeds for plants that do not grow well by seed.

APWA – Communications

The other meeting I had was with our chapter communication committee. We were set up at the last executive committee meeting to look into the communications of our chapter. This was our kick-off meeting where we looked at the big picture of what we were trying to accomplish and who we were targeting as an audience. Then we decided what methods and tools we were going to research. I have been creating a workbook for us to use in this effort. So when we are done, I will post a copy of the workbook on the site so anyone else can use it for similar efforts.


Lighting of our Parking Lot

We are still having issues with finding lights that meet the photometric requirements for our parking lot. The last vendor I was working with could not find a light, and like our consultant, did not want to alter our parking lot configuration to make it work. So I contacted one last vendor and asked if he could find a lighting scheme that worked even if it meant changing our parking layout. Hopefully he will be able to come up with something. If not, I don't think we'll be able to meet the lighting requirements for spill over.

Staff meeting

We also had our staff meeting today. Like we do at most, we discussed all our projects. And at the end we tried something new where we held a pre-design project meeting. At this meeting we discussed next year's road project and how we wanted to approach the plan development. We also set some tentative milestones and dates.

Subdivision meeting

Later in the afternoon we met with representatives of a subdivision that is going through a possible change in ownership. The subdivision was never completed, and we are trying to work to get the public improvements done.


There were a few other miscellaneous projects I worked on such as helping a resident complete documents to vacate a portion of the city alley. And I am still waiting to get that bid tab from PACE. It has been such a busy week, and tomorrow is also looking like its another full day!


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 62

Day 62

Bus Rapid Transit

Today a few of our staff attended a meeting at Sherman Hospital in Elgin. The county arranged for the meeting to discuss bus rapid transit (BRT) along the Randall road corridor. It was a well attended discussion that lasted for most of the morning. A representative began the presentations by highlighting information about the new hospital. They have a 15-acre geothermal lake for heating/cooling that has saved them $1 million in operating costs annually. (You can read more cool facts about the lake here http://www.shermanhealth.com/geothermal_lake.php)

Next Kane county board chairman Karen McConnaughay summarized the county's work and vision for Randall road. Then Josh Ellis from the Metropolitan Planning Council  shared with us his organization's work with studying bus rapid transit in Chicago. Earlier this year they released the report:  Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity . His explanation of how they identified potential corridors was interesting and made sense. 

Next up was the consultant who has been studying the implementation of bus rapid transit along Randall road – a long transportation corridor that links many of the larger communities in Kane County. It's interesting to me as someone who just moved back into the area a few years ago to listen to these studies and recommendations, remember what the corridor used to look like 30 years ago, then hear the background story of how Randall road developed. Many, many years ago when I lived and worked for the city of Aurora, I used to occasionally drive along Randall road to visit parks and the fairground. So I remember the rural character of the road that existed before development broke loose out here. Having left the area about 1985, I never saw how the road expanded to a four-lane urban section with major big-box stores replicated along it from Aurora to Elgin. But I've been told there was great effort put into making sure the corridor was streamlined for the movement of cars to the point of designing out pedestrian access. These past efforts seemed to have worked – the road moves a tremendous number of cars on a daily basis. However, it most definitely is not conducive to moving peds/bikes. And unfortunately, all those stores and amenities are huge attractions for the large population living on the other side – particularly teens who can't drive (I know from personal experience with my own children). Over the last few years, attempts have been made to bring the pedestrian back into the mix by adding sidewalks and a bus route with stops. But the pedestrian infrastructure has a long way to go, and that doesn't help with navigating the long distances between shopping centers. So, to summarize, the current trend is to "undo" the "success" of initial, car-centric development efforts in the corridor.

After hearing from the county's consultant, we broke into groups to further discuss the feasibility of implementing BRT in the corridor. Everyone seemed to conclude that yes, it could work, but… I think the "but" shows the success of BRT will be dependent on the market, the understanding and acceptance by the city governments and the public, the funding, and the specific characteristics of each area along the corridor. One key change that will have to occur is for the corridor to change from a sprawling retail center to an area of high density, mixed-use developments. This is because BRTs are dependent on the presence of a large population in need of transit. So the question is, do people want this part of their community to transition to a densely populated area with a mix of other uses in order to improve movement of pedestrians along the corridor? It's hard to say.

Finally, the morning ended with planners from PACE demonstrating the current challenges of navigating the current bus system along Randall road. The problems include a lack of shelters, sidewalks, and navigation aids. Fortunately there are plans to install shelters and sidewalks next year so this will greatly improve the experience.

Overall, readers of my blog can probably figure out what was on my mind the whole time – PRTs! or personal rapid transit. With the cost of BRTs at $2.5 to $24 million per mile, it definitely should be cost effective to instead implement a PRT system, and it would be less intrusive to the corridor. There are other benefits over a BRT such as not having to wait for a bus or learn a schedule and not having to tolerate a packed bus with no where to sit or place bags, and I am not so sure a PRT would require the change to high density. But of course, this is what is so frustrating about being in the US – most people here want to hang onto old technology while other countries are already implementing newer and better solutions that we refuse to even acknowledge. What makes it even more frustrating in this situation is that we were not talking about putting in a BRT system today – this is our county's vision for 2040! By that time, every other country in the world will have a PRT system, and we'll just be cutting the ribbon on a new BRT system. Oh well, I embedded a video showing the new PRT system at Heathrow. Maybe by 2040, I'll be retired and can move to a place like England!


Downtown Plan

After lunch we had another meeting to finish reviewing our downtown plan. There are a lot of changes we've made to the draft so the consultant will have a lot of work to revise it. Of course, the focus of our department is more on the transportation sections, but it's still interesting to listen and learn about the zoning and economic development side of it all.

APWA Meeting

At the end of the day I met with a few members of our local chapter of APWA. We have all volunteered to help out at a workshop that APWA will host on November 10th to teach team building and problem solving skills. It was a good and fun discussion, and everyone came up with great ideas to integrate into the day. If you are in the Chicago area and are interested in attending, the link to the information is here: Team Building and Problem Solving Skills

One side discussion that came up at our meeting was the lack of engineers in the US compared to other countries. Although we didn’t get into a lot of theories of why this is, I have to wonder if it does have something to do with what I mentioned in the BRT paragraphs above – the US is behind other countries in investigating and implementing new technology. I realize this is not in every industry, and from what I can tell, our military is impressively cutting edge. But these pockets of innovation don’t get transferred to the lives of the general public.

One suggestion I had made at the BRT meeting was to take the discussion into the schools – after all if they are talking about something for the year 2040, it’s the people in school now who may well be weighing in on the fate of Randall road. Better to have them aware of it and thinking about it now. And maybe it might get some interested in pursuing a career in transportation. But few seem interested in doing this or in seeing the benefits of involving schools in what we do. So we end up with kids in school who see adults implementing the same old solutions, avoiding innovation, and leaving them out of the discussion. Why in the world would they be interested in engineering! However, I realize there’s also the chance that places like China have more engineers because they are making kids study engineering. My co-worker is from there, and she said she had no choice what to study or where to work – that was all decided for her by the government.

On a lighter note, I did discover one of the other volunteers also plays World of Warcraft which also started a whole other side conversation!


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Days 34 through 38

In an effort to catch up on my postings due to attending the APWA conference, I'm combining all last week into one post then following up tomorrow with the first two days of this week. 

Days 34 through 36

Day 34 was spent attending the APWA conference in Denver. You can read a short summary of my day on the post before this one: 2011 APWA  Conference – Day 2. There are a couple extra items I probably should have added to this post, but they really deserve a post by themselves so will write something up later this week.

Day 35 was also spent at the APWA conference – I also need to summarize this day on a separate blog post. 

Day 36 was spent traveling back from Denver. Before leaving, I tried to take a lot of photos around the Capitol building. You can look through my photostream on Flickr here: Denver Colorado Photostream. There are quite a few photos illustrating streetscape elements, construction, and other design elements.

Day 37

Of course, my first day back at work after the conference was spent mostly catching up. I went though emails and met with my staff to discuss the status of certain projects. I also worked on preparing a status update for an STP project we have scheduled for FY2013.

Day 38

Chicago 2011 Sept (101)

Finally on Friday, another engineer and I attended a "lunch and learn" about natural area management. It was presented by Karen Kase who works for Hampton, Lenzini, and Renwick. I've mentioned her before on this blog – Karen is part of a team at HLR managed by Erica Spolar that focuses on design and management of natural areas including wetlands, stormwater basins, etc. The information they shared with the group is important because our area has constructed these natural areas everywhere, but it appears that when they were put in, a management plan was not always created. So many of us are now working to address this component. And until now, there was little formal guidance on how to handle this aspect of these natural areas. 

Our office also had scheduled the carpets to be cleaned over the weekend so all of us had to clear out our offices. You don't realize how much stuff you have on the floor until you have to move it. Today I told another co-worker, I was starting to think maybe they did this to encourage us to minimize what we put on the floors!


Opening Day at 2011 APWA Congress & Exposition

Denver Colorado Sept 2011

This year's International Public Works Conference & Exposition is being held in Denver, Colorado. The event opened yesterday morning with a welcome by the outgoing president, George Crombie, and a transfer of leadership to the new president, Diane M. Linderman.

First General Session – Michael Hayden

The first general session followed with keynote speaker, Michael Hayden, retired U.S. Air Force Four Star General and former director of the CIA and NSA. General Hayden shared stories of his time as director of each agency and offered his insight into leadership.

One interesting remark he made was that we advance in our careers by doing things right, but eventually we reach a level where we only advance by doing the right thing. To me, I see within this remark one of the biggest challenges we face as we advance in local government to an appointed position. Many probably did get there by doing something the right way. But once in this upper-level position, decisions are not only made by analyzing technical information, but also understanding and weighing political factors. Even so, as a public works professional it is imperative in the end we do the right thing which can often be a balance of technical and political considerations. But this can become difficult when an elected official wants to do something for purely political reasons like getting more votes. How many of us have seen others in our field let go or blamed for problems due to refusing to go along with a decision that was made to advance a political career?

The risk of being put in this situation is one of the main reasons I hear cited for why someone left local government for the private sector or why someone would not take an appointed position. Fortunately not every elected official or even local government operates this way or demands their appointed staff do whatever they say regardless of what is "right." But it is unfortunate that this seems to be enough to scare off some people who would have made great managers. 


After the general session, everyone went to the exposition hall to eat and visit the exhibits. Usually I like to take time to talk with different vendors, take photos to share with co-workers or with readers of this blog, or even record videos of the demonstrations. But this year, I noticed in the brochure that photos and videos were not allowed in the expo hall. I went to the press room to register as press to see if this would allow me to take photos or record videos, but they said no. This is really unfortunate because I think as someone working in the industry every day, like most of you, I probably will ask vendors many of the same questions you would ask. How many times have you watched a demo and thought, "well that all sounds good, but what about this?" So by recording the demo given to me, readers who maybe could not attend the show can still get the benefit of the demo and have typical questions answered. And the vendors get the benefit of having their demo reach a much wider audience. 

In a way, this refusal to allow sharing of information is somewhat contradictory to the increased integration of social media into the conference. This year, APWA is more actively tweeting the show with events and give-a-ways announced regularly throughout the day. Vendors have even been sending out tweets offering prizes for those showing up with passwords for mentioning the tweet. I was given a cute little dump truck by CH2MHill yesterday for seeing their tweet, showing up at their booth, and mentioning the tweet. Anyone at the show can see the stream by following the hashtag #APWAEXPO. The other great consequence of following the hashtag is that I was able to find new people in public works to follow. And at the end of the day, one of the more active people tweeting, mpbaldauf, even stopped by and introduced herself so I got to meet her in person.

The other great addition to this year's conference is the ability to watch and participate from a distance. If you couldn't make it to Denver, but still want to check out the events, make sure you register here: APWA Live!

Denver Colorado Sept 2011


FHWA Update by Victor Mendez

I was impressed that the director of FHWA, Victor Mendez, took time to attend the conference and present at a session. He talked about the President's proposed jobs bill. The President is asking for Congress to fund $50 billion of infrastructure improvements, $27 billion of which is targeted for roads and bridges. Funds will also be available for improvements to water and energy systems and schools. Most in our field would probably not have been surprised to hear there is up to 30% unemployment in the construction industry in some regions. And the idea is this bill will significantly help put many of those unemployed back to work.

On top of this, Mendez said the President has proposed to set aside another $10 billion as seed money to establish an infrastructure bank. According to him, project funding decisions will be based upon "how bad is the project needed, and how much good will it do for the economy?" 

Mendez shared an example of why this investment in our infrastructure is so critical. About a week or so ago, the Sherman Mitten bridge connecting Kentucky and Indiana was closed due to cracks in structural members found by inspectors. The closure of this bridge has resulted in major disruption and cost for commuters and companies moving goods through this corridor. (You can read more about the bridge closure here: Midwest Jammed by Bridge Closing.)

He also discussed transportation funding and the extension of the highway bill. And then he went on to discuss the Every Day Counts program. This initiative is focused on shortening project delivery and promoting the use of innovative construction and design techniques. Mendez said, "EDC is part of larger effort to speed up recovery and create jobs and win the future." But he also explained he was trying to create something that will not just be another short-term program, but an idea that will "infuse the industry with a culture of innovation" and be in place long after he is no longer director. His vision includes the creation of "councils in each state that include people from all levels of government and private sector that will meet on a regular basis." These councils will be tasked with deciding which components of EDC work best in that state and will oversee efforts to shorten project delivery.

Finally, he concluded by talking about the safety programs promoted by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. These include distracted driving legislation and implementation of safety edge. Mendez also encouraged us to "become safety ambassadors for all of us."

Social Media as a Public Works Asset

For me, the final session of the day was one in which I participated as a co-presenter with Robert Lewis. We introduced social media tools that agencies are using and discussed how others were leveraging these tools as assets for their organization. Then we suggested there are two alternatives for each agency to choose – either to ignore or ban the use of social media or to use it and engage. We emphasized the need to create a policy and provide guidance to staff no matter which alternative is chosen. And of course, we advised agencies to consider legal issues and concerns as they make their decisions and implement their policies.