Hiring, working with, and optimizing the relationship with your engineer

NOTE: The following article, written by FOX staff, appeared in the November 2016 Iowa League of Cities Cityscape magazine.

Hiring, working with, and optimizing the relationship with your engineer

Recently, over dinner with colleagues, discussion turned to how engineers and city officials could set the stage for an atmosphere that encourages a healthy and mutually-beneficial relationship. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive look at that; there is actually a great deal to consider. However, we decided that it could be helpful to point out some of the stumbling blocks encountered.


Our goal as engineers is to serve you well, solve your problems and meet your needs. Easier said than done. Despite our best efforts we may fall short of at least some of your expectations, especially if those expectations aren’t clearly communicated. Even if your expectations are clearly communicated, it’s a sure bet that we could miss the mark for the mayor, or water superintendent or city manager, because their expectations are different.

Cities tend to limit access to key decision-makers. That scenario can work if there is trust and communication between all levels of government, messages are shared and on-point, everyone is on the same page, capital improvement plans and corresponding budgets have been developed, funds have been set aside, and everything is in order and previously agreed upon.

That is rarely the case.  So elected officials, communicate with your staff and be willing to spend time with your engineer, because you want to get it right the first time. Clearly communicating your expectations to your engineer will help projects go smoother.


How do you make sure you get it right the first time? Hire the most qualified firm. A look at the Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) process will serve you well.

The Iowa Engineering Society has a guide http://www.acec.org/advocacy/qbs/ meant to assist in narrowing the field to qualified firms. Ask that proposals contain project experience that is similar in scope and size to your project; then request that teams be made up of engineers who worked on those projects and are familiar with the challenges of a city your size or with your history (growth patterns, geographic location, Iowa regulations, etc.) Establishing a clear scope of services will help achieve the level of service you need.


It’s a real challenge, that $20 million stormwater and infiltration/inflow project. And, you have no idea how you will pay for it. But it’s looming. Begin now, if you haven’t already, to put a plan in place (capital improvements, facility plans, capital equipment, etc.) complete with action items and dates/years for completion. Connecting this data to the budget will set the stage for realistic, incremental rate increases (rather than painful large increases in a crisis), and the prudent use of tools such as Tax Increment Financing (TIF), bonds, State Revolving Fund (SRF), and a search for potential grant funds. Always work closely with your municipal advisor well in advance of a project. As a wise city manager said to me recently, “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”


It is imperative that cities maintain their maps and data. You take copious notes at every council meeting; treat your other records the same. “But my engineer does that for me”, you say. That is fine until the relationship changes, you no longer work with that firm, and now, you no longer have access to the records. Get them. Keep them. Develop a system of maintaining them. They’re yours. You paid for them. Lack of documentation or poor documentation can increase project costs; operationally, you need the data and record drawings to be accessible and accurate.


If you trust your engineer, keep them. Involve them as you would your own staff – they are an extension of that staff and can be an important and wonderful resource. If you think they’re not being honest or fair, part company.

Did you know? When you consider the life cycle cost of a project, particularly large capital projects such as water and wastewater treatment plants, the cost for engineering is a very small percentage of that cost. That is, if you have the right engineer. Not having the right engineer can really cost you.


It is well known that the costs to fix errors increases as the project matures. Bids received for construction can be vastly different, depending on the quality of plans and specs – contractors know which firms consistently provide the most reliable detail. Choosing the right engineer is imperative to keeping your costs down.


Communication is a complicated beast that needs to be fed, monitored, and cared for. On many levels this is the most critical aspect of any healthy relationship, and owner/engineer relationships are no different. When your engineer provides advice or solutions, please listen and respond, and offer ideas and constructive criticisms. It is your project.

If you don’t understand, ask them to explain. That goes for everyone from the veteran council member to the city manager to the superintendent wearing many hats. Questions, and the discussion that follows, are good ways to keep the lines of communication open.

What can you expect from your engineer? That they will share their expertise and creativity, along with regular updates, and timely responses to your and staff requests. The project understanding which they submitted as part of their proposal should lay out an exact framework for the number of meetings, reviews, presentations, public involvement and so on.

Make sure the channels of communication are always open. Share any unhappiness or dissatisfaction you may be feeling. No system is perfect, and no one reads minds. Say something. Talk it out. We all love to get a pat on the back when we’ve done something well; however, as your consultant, we want to know if you’re unhappy. In every relationship, there will be times when one party is unhappy with the other. The question then is: how does your consultant respond when you’re unhappy? Whether it’s about a change order, lack of responsiveness, etc., you want to be sure that when the going gets tough they are around for cleanup.

The firm that stands behind their work and their word is the firm that is looking for a relationship with you, not for the project alone. The longer they are with you, the better they know you. The better they know you and the bones of your city, the better they can assist as you plan for and enjoy the best your city can be.

Finally, it helps to hire people you enjoy. You will spend a lot of time with your engineer. As humans, we tend to be more communicative, share more in-depth information, and listen more critically and with more empathy when we’re with people we trust and admire. Good luck!

Terry Lynch has worked for many years with the engineers at FOX Engineering Associates where she serves as director of marketing. She can be reached at (515) 233-0000 or tlynch@foxeng.com. FOX Engineering, www.foxeng.com, is a Partner with the League; learn more about the League’s Community Alliance programs at www.iowaleague.org.


FOX Engineering is an environmental engineering firm based in Ames, Iowa. We specialize in water and wastewater solutions for our diverse municipal and industrial clients. Our work varies in size and scope and can be found throughout the Midwest and beyond.