018: Part 1- A Case Study in Revolutionizing Community Engagement in Utility Master Planning


Bio: Tom Hickmann is a civil engineer with over 25 years’ experience in wastewater, stormwater, water supply, water rights, system design, hydraulic modeling, utility management, and utility master planning. Mr. Hickmann is the City of Bend Engineering & Infrastructure Planning Department Director focusing on oversight and implementation of all master plans and capital improvement projects.

He has been credited with bringing innovative ideas to the City, solving challenging issues and overseeing record infrastructure growth in one of the country’s fastest growing cities. He is noted for championing a unique approach to big-ticket infrastructure decision making and bringing these concepts to engineering audiences nationwide. He introduced hydraulic modeling techniques and implemented an enhanced modeling analysis which has been used as an example for assessing future infrastructure needs of growing communities.

We met Tom at the Utilities Management Conference in February 2018 and his presentation rocked us to our core. We had an incredible chat with him that we decided to break into two episodes. This is the first half of the conversation when we discuss how Tom set out on a mission to disprove the value of communication and public outreach through his thesis and ended up proving himself wrong. He then became not only a vocal proponent and advocate of public involvement in master planning, but also practiced what he preached and revolutionized the way his department conducts business.

Top Takeaways:

  1. [12:14] Hear Tom tell us about how he set out to debunk the need for communication and public involvement, proved himself wrong, and transformed his career.

  2. [14:40] “I realized at that point in my career that my skill set had run out….The engineering part is fun and easy. The hard part is finding the support, the financial backing that you’re asking these people to make investments in.”

  3. [17:15] “I had an obligation to citizens to engage them and to give them, quite frankly, a voice in democracy and that was a game changer for me. To realize all of these investments are an extension of our democracy. Yes, it’s technical but, fundamentally, citizens have a right to have a say so.”

  4. [22:16] Population growth impacts how cities communicate with the public.

  5. [27:26] Tom explains the value in regularly surveying your constituency. The survey questions can’t be generic, you have to dig deep to get a real sense of public trust and buy-in. Surveys aren’t enough either. It’s best to pair them with focus groups and interviews.

  6. [34:51] Bold leadership and what it takes. “Leadership is situational, it’s not individual. There’s times when our skill sets and our natural abilities align with the moment, align with the point to lead. A good leader realizes they aren’t always the best person to lead on every issue.”

  7. [40:08] A case study on the project that transformed him and everything he understands and believes. Hear how lack of public involvement landed them in district court, and how creating true public involvement, in the beginning, could have saved the city the incredible amount of time and money spent in delays and legal fees.


Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration— Ed Catmull

Plain, Honest Men — Richard Beeman

On Thinking Institutionally — Hugh Heclo

Public Process in Utility Master Planning — Thesis by Tom Hickmann


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