Public works programs have been posited as win–win solutions for achieving societal goals for ecological restoration and poverty alleviation. However, little is documented regarding the challenges of implementing such projects. A commonly cited example is South Africa's invasive alien plant control program “Working for Water” (WfW), which aims to create employment via restoring landscapes invaded with alien plants. Recent studies have raised questions over the effectiveness of this program in achieving both its restoration and poverty alleviation goals. This is the first study that we are aware of that synthesizes the knowledge of managers on both the poverty alleviation and environmental outcomes of a public works project. Herein, we sought to understand the challenges and constraints faced by 23 WfW managers in fulfilling the program's environmental and poverty alleviation objectives. We found that the challenges most frequently cited by managers related to the capacity and competence of managers and teams, followed by challenges relating to planning and coordination, specifically the challenges of being flexible and adaptive when constrained by operating procedures. In addition, the current focus on maximizing short-term employment was perceived by some as limiting the efficiency and long-term effectiveness of the WfW program in achieving its environmental and social goals. We suggest that improving the conditions and duration of employment could improve the effectiveness of invasive alien plant control and ecological outcomes. We also suggest that WfW measure the impacts of their interventions through an adaptive management approach so that it can learn and adapt to the challenges it faces.