Shawn O’Leary, Norman, Okla., director of public works, joined the team in 2007 and his primary goal was improvement of his department. “I was looking for a tool to help me fix that,” he explained. He had been watching the American Public Works Association accreditation process develop over the last decade and brought it up to the city manager as an improvement suggestion.
It is an extensive process, and while it took some time to get everyone involved on board, Norman became the first city in Oklahoma and the 64th city in the United States to receive APWA accreditation in 2010.
“The first effort is the hardest, and you’re starting from scratch,” O’Leary admitted. In APWA, the term public works has a broad definition, which means it also includes the department of utilities and the parks and recreation department. From the beginning, all three departments have worked together to be accredited. Going through the accreditation process, O’Leary commented, “forces you to sit down and go back through the practices and scrutinize yourself against the best wastewater standards.”
One year during the process, departments focused on the engineering branch of public works, with officials focusing on the standards and design criteria. This branch handles the design and construction of major projects, such as roads and bridges and development of the subdivision process. Officials discovered the design criteria was outdated and 20 years old, so they updated the entire criteria during the APWA accreditation process. This took hundreds of hours and multiple public meetings.
Most recently, during the last re-accreditation process, the city had to update 468 practices. One of the biggest reasons for this was the department of public works took on the bus transit system, which had to be accredited.
There are also instances in which APWA will issue an accreditation to the city with processes that need to be fixed next time. For example, human resources and financing departments are necessary to operate the public works. However, it was discovered that the city’s personnel manual for approximately 900 city employees was six years old and needed to be updated by the new human resources manager.
O’Leary mentioned the street sweeping section had been updated the last time, so it needed little work this time — besides a general update of the manual and other timely items.
Once all the processes, documents and necessary paperwork is turned in to APWA, site visitors come to the city to go through the accreditation process and check if all the requirements are met. These site visitors are volunteers from other accredited cities. This process tends to take three days.
With new staff coming on board, Norman officials undergo retraining every four years to keep the accreditation process current. When the re-accreditation occurs every four years, the city still has to go back through every best practice. After two years, APWA will notify the city it needs updates. In order to give the staff enough time to go through the process, the city departments give themselves a year to do it. During the last year before re-accreditation, the accreditation team has weekly or biweekly meetings to ensure the departments are all going through the process.
The city has since been re-accredited in 2014, 2018 and 2022. “The real secret is having an accreditation manager,” he divulged. Since the first time Norman was accredited, the system has been updated to a computer web-based system where documents can be submitted online. Norman’s accreditation manager tracks all parts of the system.
O’Leary believes it acts as a motivator for city officials to keep getting better at what they do for the citizens of Norman. The processes worked on and updated during accreditation are used every day, and they can be sent to council members, etc. whenever necessary.
“The biggest misconception,” O’Leary mentioned, “is that because you’re accredited, it means you’re the best. It means we are very good and excellent in many areas. But what it really means is we are willing to put ourselves to the test every four years to see if we are the most efficient with our dollars. We are willing to take on continuous improvement. We always strive to be the greatest and the best. APWA wants to know your whole system is intact and cutting edge.”
It forces the city of Norman to improve city operations and ask questions regarding best practices. When communicating with other cities, it also helps with credibility and proves that Norman is serious about what it does. For the Norman community, it helps officials witness the changes the city is undergoing and ultimately provides better services. Official’s willingness to be subjected to peer review every four years gives them a credibility check, too, for the city they serve.