The public works department is a multifaceted, ever-evolving municipal department that few fully understand.
It is responsible for the planning, construction, operation and maintenance of a city’s infrastructure, including its roads, transportation system, bridges, water, waste disposal, pest control, etc. It touches everyone’s daily life, yet most people do not realize it. That’s why the city of Suffolk, Va., created its Public Works Citizens’ Academy so residents can learn more about the department upon which they all depend.
“There is a lot of development happening in Suffolk, and we want to engage with people,” said Wayne G. Jones, outreach coordinator with the city’s public works department. “The Citizens’ Academy was created as a way to be more transparent with the public about what we do, and more importantly, why we do it.”
A flexible format that packs a punch
Suffolk’s Public Works Citizens’ Academy began as a free two-hour, six-week session that highlighted some of the various areas of the department. It gave residents a chance to learn from senior members of the team about the services provided by this often-overlooked municipal division. Topics include an introduction to government, overview of public works, roadways, traffic engineering, refuse and recycling, stormwater, engineering, development and emergency management.
After the first academy was completed, class feedback suggested that a shorter session was in order, so the city shortened the academy to four weeks, which still packed plenty of punch for those in attendance. Jones said future academies will be adjusted based on feedback, public interest and any large projects the city has launched.
“In the first academy, we did some things that we thought would be important, such as a tour of our operations, the mosquito control lab and the city garage, but it took a lot of time, and when it came down to it, attendees wanted to know more about traffic engineering and capital projects,” Jones said. “They say that our informational presentations have given them the most valuable information, so that’s what we have focused on.”
Sessions may include question-and-answer sessions with emergency responders to find out how the city prepares for inclement weather. They may also include presentations on land acquisition and development or challenges the city faces when embarking on a large project. The department solicits feedback from attendees and those who may be interested in future academies, and as it continues to offer them, it hopes to find the perfect balance between presentation and hands-on field experiences.
“We want people to leave the academy feeling as though they can explain the process to others,” he said. “Some of those who are attending the sessions do so as members of a homeowners’ association, and they can be a great advocate for us in terms of word of mouth. When someone in their neighborhood has an issue and doesn’t know where to turn, hopefully their HOA leadership can direct them to the proper contact with the public works department.”
Making each session count
In order to encourage community participation in the Citizens’ Academy, Jones said it is not enough to merely establish the program in hopes that if a city builds it, the people will come. It is also important to have a champion at the higher end of the department so that you can attract the most knowledgeable speakers to take part in the weekly sessions. Jones said Suffolk has had both the mayor and the city manager speak at various sessions. With well-constructed and informative sessions that balance graphic material with exceptional presenters, communities can market their citizens’ academies in print, online, through social media and even by hanging up flyers in the local library.
“As you lead up to the launch date of the academy, it is vital to communicate with registered participants so that they know all of the relevant information before the first night,” he said. “We put together a nice welcome packet, including a bio of the guest speakers, an agenda and a magnet with all of the pertinent phone numbers so that we have something to hand them when they first come in as well as some light snacks. At the end of the academy, we present each cohort with a certificate of completion as well as a challenge coin, which is a nice touch.”
Above all, it is important to respect the participants’ time and collect their thoughts at the end of the session so improvements can be made in following cohorts. “So far we have held two citizen academies and we’ve had 20-plus participants in each,” Jones said. “We’ll have another one next year. When you hold one of these citizens’ academies, you are putting yourself out there and you want it to be well-received, so it is important to set the right tone. That is the key to a successful citizens’ academy.”