Faces in the Crowd - JJ Larson

Name: JJ Larson

Employer: Village of Cottage Grove

How Long:  3 ½ years 

Title:  Director of Public Works & Utilities

Education: BA Political Science & History from UW-Madison (2001); MPA from Upper Iowa University (2011)

Special Certifications, Awards, or Honors: 2013 Winner of “World’s Greatest Dad” awarded by the Larson children.

What about Public Works is exciting to you? What drives you to serve the public? I think it must be a calling, to provide the often “hidden” services that the public need. I have never been motivated or overly excited by big projects, but by the small everyday things that keep our community running smoothly. Testing the drinking water to ensure safety and quality, keeping the sanitary sewers flowing, cleaning and inspecting storm infrastructure to prevent flooding and ensure water quality, filling potholes and plowing snow. The little things, that rarely get noticed unless something’s NOT done, that is what motivates me; being a small part of a team that almost anonymously keeps the community going.

What is the best Public Works innovation you’ve seen in your career?  I believe it is mobile & data technology broadly; cell phones, tablets, GIS, all of it is remarkable how far we’ve come in public works. When I first started we had huge books of maps and asset management was just beginning to become a buzzword. Now, staff can have a tablet in hand and track, record, lookup, modify and assess information in real time about any piece of infrastructure we manage. Pumps, valves, manholes, sewers, signs and streets can all have data collected simply and quickly in the field. Then that data is instantly saved and uploaded to be utilized in making budgetary decisions, ease reporting to regulatory agencies, making immediate repair work orders or long-term maintenance plans.

What has been the biggest challenge – or – what do you see as the biggest challenge going forward? Utilizing technology effectively. “Doing more with less” is a cliché, but it is part of what I see as the biggest challenge in public works. Broad and fast advances in technology are going to offer opportunities to efficiently do more with less, but the challenge I see will be in properly utilizing those technological opportunities. There is the ever-present resistance to change inside of organizations that “have always done it that way.”  There is the challenge of getting buy-in from elected officials to take risks and try to find efficiencies in technology that may require significant upfront investments (what council is going to sign-off on the first fully autonomous plow truck?)  And there is the challenge of identifying what technologies actually make sense for our work. There are shiny new bells and whistles developed every minute, the hard part is, and will continue to be, identifying which ones will actually provide tangible benefit to our residents, and which won’t.

How do you spend your free time when you’re not serving the public?  Watching (occasionally coaching) my kids’ sports and activities. We have season tickets to Badger football and try to get to as many as our schedules allow. My favorite thing is getting to our little cabin in the central part of the state as much as possible and just doing whatever the family feels like that day; hiking, fishing, or nothing at all!


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