Eric Dargan had never worked in public works before assuming the helm in America’s fourth-largest city. However, his experience as installation director for Southern Bell Telephone Co. (now AT&T) helped him find creative solutions for reducing inefficiencies.
Houston has 2.3 million people and 16,000 miles of mostly concrete roads. From the moment he took over Public Works and Engineering in 2002, Dargan was inundated with work requests as well as close to 4,000 backlogged pothole repairs. The department of 3,800 employees was having difficulty making 60,000 repairs a year to roads ranked among the worst for a major U.S. city.
“They were built in the 1960s and 1970s out of concrete, which doesn’t allow for true lasting repair without replacing an entire panel,” Dargan says. “Each city differs, but potholes and roadway maintenance weren’t considered as high a priority as they are today.”
It took 11 months to eliminate the backlog without hiring additional employees. Today, citizen-reported potholes are filled by the next business day 99% of the time.
Tackling with Technology
Dargan attacked the problem with technology, employee-devised processes and procedures, and new equipment.
“We re-evaluated our entire repair process and created an action plan,” Dargan says. “We set reasonable expectations, checks and balances for accountability and quality, equipped employees with newer equipment to get the job done right and empower them to take pride in their work, and celebrate our accomplishments. We also leveraged technology to improve our work order system and implemented software and tablets to schedule and route crews for faster response.”
One technological solution is a 311 service request hotline that allows residents to file work orders. For potholes, Dargan commissioned a separate website and app with SeeClickFix, where residents can track requests and see a dashboard of department projects. The interface provided transparency never before available to the public.
Drones are another technological solution to reducing backlogs. Department engineers use the technology to conduct condition assessments that inform maintenance plans for off-road ditches, bridges, and other hard-to-access facilities.
“We’re always looking at new technology to improve on our service levels,” Dargan says. “I discovered that drones give us the advantage of aerial shots and views that we couldn’t accomplish from street level.”
Learning the Ropes
While Dargan has overcome one of the department’s worst backlogs, his biggest challenge is back at the office.
“Public Works has more than 3,800 employees,” he says. “Learning the roles and responsibilities of that many people has been a welcomed challenge.”Despite the field workload and managerial duties, Dargan loves being a public servant.
“There’s never a dull moment in public works,” he says. “Every day is like playing for the championship because you’re on the big stage in the nation’s fourth-largest city. You must bring your ‘A’ game every single day.”