Deteriorating infrastructure is a problem nationwide. Decreasing budgets and increasing demands are making it more difficult than ever to provide services at a level acceptable to the public. Asset management systems are gaining attention as an effective tool for improving performance, reducing costs and simplifying compliance with regulations within public and private organizations. Highly detailed information about infrastructure, including roads, bridges, dams, and water and sewer facilities, is used as the basis for capital improvement programs that prioritize necessary repair and replacement of assets prior to a critical failure that could endanger the public.
In the past, public agencies could fix visible problems like pot holes or missing road signs, while possibly missing serious issues like degrading pipes that contaminate the water supply or structural flaws in a bridge that result in a collapse. GASB 34, in effect since 1999, requires public entities to meet basic accounting requirements that include identifying all eligible capital assets, and it offers the option of using a modified reporting approach that involves estimating and tracking the real annual cost of maintaining the assets. The modified approach has been effective in bringing attention to serious budget shortfalls for ongoing maintenance.
Developing an effective asset management system requires four primary components: people and processes, performance, data and systems (see diagram). “Asset management requires a long-term commitment to continuous improvement by the people involved,” explains Tony Palizzi, president of GIS in the Rockies. “The high return on investment in terms of decreased operating costs and improved functionality is well worth the effort. However, it is a data-intensive process, so the results are only as good as the inputs.”
Palizzi, who will be presenting a preconference training workshop on asset management systems on Sept. 19, along with Phyllis Thomas, owner of Phyllis Thomas Consulting, and Barbara Wolf, a 25-year veteran of Denver Water, notes that the foundation of an asset management system is an accurate and complete inventory of assets and an analysis of all processes within a department. “The biggest challenge is collecting the right data—the data you need to make decisions and accomplish your goals,” he says. “Some agencies collect more information than they can use, while others don’t collect the correct information.” Data collection may include a transfer of knowledge from employees who have been doing their jobs without processes ever having been written down.
He points out that it is not always feasible to implement an asset management system enterprise-wide, but it is important to start somewhere and add departments as time and money allows. An assessment of the criticality of each asset helps determine a schedule for implementation and influences the level of accuracy and detail required, which has a direct impact on the project costs. The technology used to perform data collection activities includes a variety of mobile devices suitable for different situations. Some workers require “store and forward” capabilities and resident applications, while others can operate in a purely wireless environment. Other examples of improved technology that enhances data collection include remote meter reading, wireless flow monitors, and wireless sensors that measure structural integrity.
“Although every organization will have unique characteristics that best practices might not address, there are basic questions all asset managers should be able to answer,” says Thomas. “To name just a few: What are the critical assets and where are they? What is the condition of each asset? What service level does the asset deliver? What is the estimated life cycle of priority assets?”
Next, it is necessary to decide how the department really wants to do business, as opposed to how it currently does business. By defining the desired service levels that meet the organization’s goals, everyone knows what is expected. Based on these goals, an asset management software that best fits the needs of the organization is selected. Most programs contain specific modules that focus on areas such as work management, service management, asset management, inventory, procurement, contract management, resource management, scheduling, workflow, and GIS integration. Thomas further describes the process. “Typically the inventory of assets is mapped in a geographic information system. This spatial data is integrated with the information contained in the asset management modules, such as financial records, repair history, and maintenance requests.”
Asset management systems continue to become more sophisticated to allow users to deliver more services with fewer resources. “The more holistic the approach to asset management, the more effective the system will be in the long term,” asserts Palizzi. “By looking at all aspects of the program, including the overall strategy for delivering a certain level of service, a data model can be developed that provides for cross-functional data collection. This avoids duplication of effort, saves time and money, and increases the return on investment for the system overall.”