Better Roads Magazine, Interview of Dennis Polhill by Ruth W. Stidger, Editor-in-Chief, March 1991
Public works managers are required to serve in a dual role — part-time manager and part-time engineer, says
Dennis Polhill, P.E. Vice President, Pavement Management Systems. A report of the National Council on Public Works Improvement released last year stated the problem politely and tactfully by saying the public works field “is in need of innovation and leadership.” Innovation and leadership are lacking on both the managerial front and on the technical front, Polhill, formerly a public works manager, says.
Is it any wonder that the situation exists, Polhill asks. The brushfire nature of public service is a situation that allows public works managers very little discretionary time. Few would dispute the studies that report the time available for creative efforts is typically less than one hour per week. Is it any wonder that the public works profession is lacking in innovation and leadership? The achievements of the profession prove that the abilities are there. However, the role and priorities of public works managers need to be rethought and redefined.
Trends indicate that rethinking and redefining of roles is occurring. Public works functions are becoming fragmented, with many agencies splitting public works into multiple functions, such as transportation, maintenance, utilities, and so on. This is accompanied by a second trend — the diminishing status of the professional engineer.
Historically, it is understandable that the engineer would be looked to for leadership. For over 100 years, the emphasis has been to construct infrastructure. Our population and economy grew enormously. Technical skills were required to adequately oversee the design and construction of the incredible infrastructure of North America. Knowledge of financial management and human resource management was limited to completing construction projects. Engineers were intelligent enough to deal with the low-priority problems of finance and human resources without formal training, Polhill says. But, be cautions, being an engineer is not enough to be the public works manager of the future.
To assume that the public works manager of the future will be an engineer without training in finance and human resources is naive. Engineers without these other management skills will be relegated to positions as technicians. The priority for the future is not the construction of massive new infrastructure in North America. Public works managers must have a combination of skills in finance, human resources, and technical areas. If engineers are not prepared to adapt to fill the necessary management void, non-technical managers will ascend and will grow to dominate the field in the future.
A principle rule of goal setting is to organize goals in priority order. One can have only one first priority goal. If more than one exists, concentration and focus on the successful achievement of the goals is diffused. Failure at the achievement of the goals is virtually guaranteed.
You are a public works manager, Polhill. But the question today is, are you a manager, or an engineer?