Few, if any, residents realize they own thousands, if not tens of thousands of infrastructure assets — signs, poles, lights, drains, pipes, pumps, buildings, etc. — and would be shocked at the replacement cost. Until fairly recently, knowing where all these things are and what condition they’re in was a hit-or-miss affair that required years of manual labor.

It still is and still does, say those of you who responded to a recent survey by Public Works magazine. As part of our annual analysis of coming year operations and capital budgets, we asked readers in late 2014 if formalizing asset management beyond pen, paper, and maybe an Excel spreadsheet is a wise investment of the taxpayer’s dollar.

“Yes, but” was the predominant response. No one denies how well a map educates the public and elected officials on what it takes to care for their community’s largest investment (see “Why do you have an asset-management system” chart on next page), especially when resources are so tight that even police and fire are targets for budget cuts.

But underestimating deployment challenges and/or overestimating capabilities can waste time, effort, and money that could have been spent on more pressing needs.

Based on respondent comments, here are five ways to flush this significant investment down the drain:

Assuming asset management is a one-time cost

  • “We thought the hardest part would be getting the inventory. It was, but it’s difficult to maintain. Asset management requires a full-time, permanent commitment to be effective and beneficial.”
  • “Parts change or new assets are installed and aren’t added to the database. This process will continue annually.”

Not thinking through what you want from the system, and why.

  • "Determining what to include and what not to include. Data you collect is harmful to the system if it’s not updated properly.”
  • “Establishing the level at which assets are tracked; i.e., lift station versus pumps, control panel, PLC boards.”
  • “Creating logical priorities between different asset classes.”
  • “Developing a procedure that’s easy to follow for 99% of situations.”
  • “Standardization of terms.”

Ignoring potential users whose participation can make (or break) the system’s effectiveness.

  • “The process includes agreeing on standard life-cycles for different parts of the infrastructure and setting levels of service”.
  • “Breaking down the silos, historic groups, and processes to bring in a system that ‘rides’ across departments/divisions.”

Trying to do too much at once.

  • “The most challenging part is system integration. Wanting the program to work seamlessly with other types of software creates hurdles.”
  • “Rome wasn’t built in one day and your system doesn’t have to be either.”

Assuming employees will just “get over” their fear of cultural change.

  • “Only top management (director and second-tier management) perceive an advantage in accountability. Others see only the possible threat to their funding, resources, and positions.”
  • “Getting staff to understand they have to input all the data so it’s meaningful when sorts are run.”
  • “Asset management forces employees to think outside the narrow slice of performance and start seeing how their roles fit into the public infrastructure as a whole.”
  • “Managers should spend a lot of pre-project time examining processes, documentation, workflow, etc., to identify realistic, tangible goals based on the corporate culture. If your department operates by the seat of its pants, effectively using the new system will require routinely paying attention to actual production data and using it — regardless of whether it came from an automated system or not.”

Typical comments

Yes: Measuring our performance is essential to accountability and resource allocation.

No: We never get enough money to do what’s recommended by systems we’ve used.

Comment: Our pavement rating program helped identify candidate streets. Water and sewer are less “sexy” and thus more difficult to justify, but having that quantifiable information to support capital improvement requests is vital.