Who Are the Heroes? The Ones Who Solve Emergencies or the Ones Who Prevent Them With Strategic Planning?

A college friend’s pet theory, built on experience, points to a flaw in traditional approaches to managing public infrastructure.

A good college friend earned part of his yearly tuition by working summers for his home city’s public works department, specifically on a sewer maintenance crew. A major in English and political science, he wrote an extended poem (quite humorous) about his pipe cleaning experience and the friends he made on the job.

Later, in a final paper for a political science class, he put forward The Sewer Crew Theory of Government. He observed that his sewer maintenance squad took pride in responding to crises — in showing up at the scene of a big stoppage, fixing the problem and looking like heroes. That, he said, was a lot more fun than traveling around doing preventive maintenance or, even more mundane, planning long-term strategy.

TO THE RESCUE

His theory held that public officials, especially elected officials, tend to think like, well, a sewer crew. They may not like it when constituents complain, but at the same time, they enjoy stepping in at such times with a solution to whatever problem caused the complaints.

The theory further held that it was futile to expect politicians to think long-term — to spend time and money dealing with things that might not cause problems until five, 10 or 20 years down the road. In other words, from my friend’s somewhat cynical college student perspective, the government was inherently managed by crisis.

No one wants to denigrate sewer crews or treatment plant operators by comparing them with politicians. And of course, water professionals always have dealt and always will deal with emergencies. That’s a big part of their job, and very necessary.

A COMMON FAILING

With that disclaimer, there is much truth in my friend’s theory, and it doesn’t apply only to government. Look back some decades to the way United States automakers kept building cars with reliability issues, changing only when Toyota, Honda, Nissan and others began eating their lunch.

Look at homeowners, who don’t maintain their sewer laterals until some nasty stuff backs up into the basement. And when is the last time you heard a homeowner talk about starting a septic system inspection regimen or creating a sinking fund for eventual septic system replacement? No, generally problems will develop and worsen until an expensive failure occurs.

In government, it’s often people just one or two removes from the front lines who see issues building into problems and want to develop preventive remedies. Such people include municipal sewer, water and utility managers. Those ranks also take in academics and associations.

Part of this magazine’s job is to recognize and elevate those who advocate long-term, strategic thinking; who do not line up with the annual chorus that goes, roughly, “The budget is tight this year — can’t we just cut back on maintenance?”

PAY ME NOW OR …

The Sewer Crew Theory calls to mind that old TV oil filter ad that showed a mechanic hoisting a ruined engine out of a car because its owner failed to change the oil. I suppose basic maintenance is a rudimentary form of strategic thinking in that it looks beyond management by crisis and an endless, costly cycle of break-fix. But real strategic thinking looks beyond the next maintenance interval to the long-term future of infrastructure.

It admits that ultimately pumps, valves, pipes, tanks and assorted mechanical systems have finite service lives — that they will eventually need replacing or at the very least rehabilitation or rebuilding. It also recognizes that communities grow, and that plans must be made and dollars earmarked for eventual expansion.

Those who think in such ways inevitably face the criticism that goes with raising taxes or user fees to fund the necessary strategic investments. They don’t look as heroic as the people who step in to deal with emergencies.

But because they think ahead to keep such emergencies from happening, and because they make provision for systems that function smoothly and efficiently far into the future, they can claim credit for quality public services at the most affordable cost. And as such, whether so recognized or not, they are true heroes.  



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