Sanne Hieltjes epitomises the saying “from humble beginnings to lofty heights”. Having grown up in a town with just 55,000 people in the south of Holland, it’s a world away from the one she now operates in as Team Manager at the City of Rotterdam and Vice President of the International Federation of Municipal Engineering (IFME), representing Royal Association Stadswerk The Netherlands. But it’s clear why she has been a public works mover and shaker for the past decade.
Sanne has held many senior positions in the public sector in the Netherlands. She has been an Adviser and Project Leader in the Ministry for Housing Spatial Planning and Environment, and Project Leader at the Department of Geo-information. And while she is currently on maternity leave from the City of Rotterdam, her 25-strong team maintains Rotterdam’s many green spaces, roads and playgrounds.
Growing up in a small town wasn’t the main reason she ended up with a career in infrastructure, she says, but she does think it influenced her need to “connect with others and see the world in a broader context” – skills she believes are indispensable to her position at the IFME. “With more than 20 member countries, the IFME’s main role is to facilitate the sharing of knowledge across international boundaries,” she explains. “Having an understanding of different cultures is essential to that.”
It’s clear that Sanne is a unique thinker. With Masters degrees in International Business, Strategy & Organisation and Public Information Management, she has all the expertise required to be an asset to any organisation. But she is quick to dismiss expertise as the ‘X factor’ that you need to be an effective public works manager. Rather, she attributes her success to personal qualities such as relatability and flexibility that she says she has developed “living in, and travelling through, Spain, South America and Asia,” and even by “conquering a foreign language to work in a bank in Brazil”.
Public works’ biggest challenge
Sanne will need all of these qualities to tackle what she sees as Europe’s (and the world’s) most pressing public works challenge – applying sustainability concepts to infrastructure. She also wants to help Rotterdam achieve its Energy Transition Plan by 2050. “With legislative hurdles and public interest in these issues exerting big pressure on public works departments, it’s important to strike the right balance between our budgets and what we need to achieve,” she says.
To that end, Sanne is a strong advocate of interdepartmental communication within local and precinct government departments. She put this strategy to the test by involving her department in a €233 million ($360 million) City of Rotterdam project to design more COVID-friendly green spaces.
“This project was heavily reliant on the design department rather than maintenance,” she says. “But often the different departments of government don’t realise when other departments can be useful. I think all major projects should have cross-departmental cooperation, rather than working in silos.” It’s why Sanne is also a strong supporter of professional memberships such as the IPWEA because they “encourage the helpful sharing of knowledge”.
She sees asset management as extremely important for the long-term financial viability of assets, but again takes a fresh approach to this topic. “Of course, when it comes to asset management, we should consider budgets and utility,” she says. “But something that we need to learn to do properly is to include a concept of societal wellbeing – to think about how these things will make for a healthier, happier population.”
With a young family of her own, Sanne regrets not having a lot of free time to indulge her interest in music and sports, but she says a perfect day off looks like a catch up with friends. Her personal management philosophy is about inspiring people.
“I’m inspired by the people around me, in my workplace, but also the people I see everywhere – like on the street,” she says. “Each person has a unique wisdom to impart that I find special. In my role as manager, I don’t need to know everything, I just have to inspire my staff to become the best.”