The tag line for Talking Infrastructure is ‘generating better questions’. Ruth’s brilliant last post reminded me that I had never defined a ‘better’ question. So let’s do that.
Very briefly, a ‘better’ question is one where the answer creates new information, or in the words of Michael Port (Heroic Pubic Speaking) it’s a question that Google can’t answer!
More than that, it generates new capability, allowing us to do new things, or old things in a better way.
Are these ‘better’ questions?
The first volume of our story of Asset Management, ‘Asset Management as a Quest’ consists of a search for the answers to the following series of questions. (You can read Part One of this volume – and our search for answers to the first two of these questions – here)
1: How much does it cost South Australians to get their water services?
2: What is the likely cost and timing of renewing water assets?
3: What is the cost and timing of renewal for all state infrastructure: Public Housing, Hospitals, Schools and Colleges, Highways,Transit, Power and Water?
4: What can be done to contain costs?
5: How do we instill an AM mindset?
6: How do we spread the word about asset management and its benefits?
7: What are the consequences if AM is not understood?
8: Are our tools and data up to the challenges we now face?
9: How do we advance the narrative but also keep it focused?
10: How did NSW move the story forward and what can we learn from its actions?
Q: Are these ‘better’ questions? Why or why not?
Q: What other questions were being considered in this early perid of our history (1984-1993)?
And, if you would like to know more about question asking, here are two great books
‘Questions are the Answer’ by Hal Gregersen, and
‘Curious’ by Ian Lewis (recommended by Lou Cripps after reading Ruth’s post)
Today is the 5th Anniversary of Talking Infrastructure. It was created in July 2016 to consider the new world we are now in – and the new questions this world and its challenges requires.
It is now massively evident that whereas a focus on competition to secure the success of individuals and individual companies has generated much that we enjoy today, it has also generated serious problems, of which climate change and social inequity are just the most visible.
Infrastructure – problem or solution?
While we may be reluctant to admit it – infrastructure has been a large part of the problem! Every infrastructure does considerable environmental damage. And not every infrastructure generates commensurate community benefit. A few months ago, I said’ Goodbye to our Talking Infrastructure Guy’,– and explained what was wrong with our current attitudes to infrastructure. Today he is formally replaced as our icon.
So welcome our new icon – the Australian platypus – symbolic of the collaboration we so badly need. The platypus was originally regarded as a joke, for it was considered an impossibility, being so many different animals all in one. And this version of the platypus reflecting our aboriginal culture is particularly appropriate. The Australian aboriginals are the oldest civilisation in the world sustaining the land for over 50,000 years. That’s resilience! And they have done it by a focus on community, rather than self, and a veneration for the land that supports us.
If we want a future that will support our children and theirs, we need to embed these iconic qualities of community, resilience, and sustainability in all of our decisions – and especially in our long term infrastructure decisions – from new and renewal to ongoing maintenance and even to eventual withdrawal.
What questions do we now need to ask ourselves in order to secure this future?
Hint: They are not the questions that we started with in asset management and which I discuss in volume 1 of our series, The Story of Asset Management. Consider the ten questions I pursued in the first 10 years (1984-1993) which you can find here Or, to see the questions in context, see “Asset Management as a Quest – contents”.
After you read these questions, consider to what extent we have already solved (or at least know the solution to). Then ask yourself what the questions for the next ten years should be.
I hope you have been enjoying Ruth’s platypus posts on our blog as much as I have – and reflecting on the interesting and critical question she has been exploring, namely, what does it mean to be an asset manager?
This is not a simple question to answer. Which is why it needs thinking about. I have been doing much thinking about it over the past few months as I have worked on the first volume of Talking Infrastructure’s 4 volume narrative, ‘The Story of Asset Management’.
Each of the four volumes covers one decade, starting in 1984, to be finished by the end of 2023. Each volume has its own theme:
Asset Management as a Quest. 1984-1993
Asset Management as an Opportunity. 1994-2003
Asset Management as a Discipline. 2004-2013
Asset Management as a Business (and beyond?) 2014-2023
As Ruth has shown in her recent posts, Asset Management needs a team.
Our story of asset management is the story of how those teams developed, how they came together over key ideas, how they fought with each other and supported each other – and became the very special kind of multi-disciplinary, multi-national tribe we are all part of today.
Every infrastructure project causes damage – to society, to the environment. We know this. A new road means loss of green space. It disrupts existing commerce and communities. Steel and cement are toxic to the environment. We accept this damage as a necessary cost of achieving a larger community good.
For too long, we have accepted this ‘larger community good’ to be the short term jobs that are created. But as shown in the last two posts, not only is this jobs gain illusory, it causes its own damaging distortions in the economy. Construction workers might gain, but other workers lose.
So if we are to support a new infrastructure project it must be because of the greater, ongoing benefits that the infrastructure will provide – after it has been constructed. For evidence based decision making, this is where we must seek our evidence.
How do we do this? What sort of evidence should we seek?
When a government runs a ‘balanced budget’ its spending (and the jobs that this spending creates) is compensated for by its taxing (and the jobs that this taxing destroys). It follows that the justification for infrastructure can never be the jobs it creates for it doesn’t create any – it simply shifts jobs from one part of the economy to another.
The job losses are not easily measured but they are real. As asset managers we see it all the time, when, following an infrastructure spending splurge, governments try to claw back the money spent by reducing funds for operations and maintenance. So that not only is there not only no net increase in funding and jobs but we are now left with distortions in the economy – more assets to maintain but smaller budgets with which to do it.
We can see this level of distortion when it happens in our own organisations. But impacts extend beyond those organisations that benefit from the infrastructure spending, to those many companies, associations, individuals that now experience higher taxes or lower government spending in their areas or lower demand because spending has been shifted elsewhere. This is difficult to see and where logic must apply.
How can we be sure that spending money on a new infrastructure project trumps spending the same amount of money on hospital staff or teachers, out-of-work youth, or any one of a number of other spending opportunities?
For the distortions to be worth it to the community, we must be pretty sure of the ongoing value of the infrastructure to the community – see Jeff Roorda’s comments to the previous post.
How often do you see arguments such as that spending, say, $100m will create Y,000 jobs? Rarely do we even question the logic, let alone the arithmetic. But we should do both. For if inserting $100m into the economy creates jobs – and it does! – then it must be equally true that extracting $100m reduces jobs. It follows that if the Government is running a balanced budget, then money into the economy through government expenditure is equal to money taken out of the economy through taxes to finance this and there is no net increase in jobs. The situation is worse if the Government is aiming at a budget surplus, for then more jobs are lost than are created.
The jobs created are nicely gathered together and visible for the project at hand, they are even amplified by media exposure, but what you don’t see are the jobs that are lost, for these are spread across the economy.
Let’s face it, to keep its budget under control it will either have to cut back on other expenditure or raise taxes and charges. (Think back to the last ‘stimulus’ bill, is that not what happened a year or so later? The government encouraged construction then later reduced funding affecting maintenance amongst other things.)
And as to the secondary round of expenditure – by which those receiving the first tranche of largesse are expected to go out and spend, thus creating more jobs, what about the secondary effects of the jobs that are lost?
Yes, we want to believe that we are making the world better by building infrastructure and creating jobs but are we in danger of letting wish fulfilment overcome logic?
Moreover, when we are losing jobs all over the country in order to put up a new infrastructure project, how can we be sure that we are gaining, in real community benefit terms, more than we are losing? Maybe we are not?
Sorry for long absence, I’m not dead, just been otherwise engaged. I am currently writing ‘The story of Asset Management: the first ten years’ (1984 – 1993) and as I read back through my old journals, it is easy to see why asset management has captivated me for so long and I thought some of the stories might captivate you, too. For example, try this:
1988 Scene: NSW Parliament House
In 1988 I attended a very heated debate on accrual accounting presented at the NSW Parliament House for elected members and selected others. It was memorable for a fight that almost broke out in the house. After much discussion on the pros and cons, one section of the audience was showing considerable disquiet. Eventually one of the group, a politician, stood up and angrily and loudly stated “If you reveal accrued liabilities we will be forced to do something about them”.
At this, the accounting professor on the platform, Bob Walker, replied neutrally “Accrual Accounting is simply an accounting system, it provides information, what you do with the information is up to you”. This was too much for the highly agitated politician who shouted “You’re just like Pontius Pilate, washing your hands of the whole affair”. Cheers broke out from that section of the audience.
What can we learn from this?
Now the academic was correct, if naive. It is true that accounting systems provide information that enable but do not enforce action. However awareness of information can be a propelling force to action, which the politician instinctively recognised. It is the old ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument, if no-one knows something needs to be done, then you cannot be blamed for not doing it. Once the facts are in the public domain, though, they may be far more difficult to ignore.
The information we develop as asset managers also presents imperatives to action – after all that is why we research, analyse and develop it. So we must be prepared for, and learn how to deal with, reactions like that of our angry politician and not go into the fray unaware. Yet how many times do we do precisely that?
The way in which our data or facts are presented is important, too. There may be no difference – in point of fact – between the glass that is half empty and the one that is half-full but the connotations are widely different. The truth is that facts can never ‘speak for themselves’. The language they speak and the message they give depends crucially on the way they are organised and presented. And this organisation and presentation is what politics is all about – influencing reactions. This is as true of internal, departmental politics as it is of larger scale national and international events.
We have developed a poor habit: decrying something as ‘just politics’ as if by doing so we can ignore it. But everything is politics! Better to learn how to play the game. That is, the game of presenting our information in such a way that the reaction we get is the one that we want.
Make a term, or an idea, popular and any number of people will latch onto it and attach it to their own agenda – and it doesn’t matter if their agenda is diametrically opposed to yours. In fact, it might serve them better if it is.
For example, I have seen instances of the term ‘asset management’ taken over by developers, applied to office cleaning, and, of course, to maintenance itself. The one I really objected to was the developers. Figuring that their own term had come into disrepute this particular group had decided to take ours!
We see what we want to see
Another problem with communication of ideas is that we tend to see what we want to see.
Years ago the Public Accounts Committee produced a report showing how much would need to be spent on hospital infrastructure renewal IF nothing was done by way of better maintenance, accounting and planning practices (ie without better asset management). A few days later the Minister for Health, completely ignoring the intent of the ‘if’ statement (as people are sadly inclined to do) profusely thanked the PAC Chairman since this ‘proved’ he needed a larger budget!
On another occasion, I was walking in the city when the State Treasurer dashed across a busy main road to tell me enthusiastically that it was thanks to me that the State had kept its triple A credit rating! What?! I had looked at our asset base and saw a future renewal problem that threatened to dwarf the state’s budget, however the credit agencies had looked at the dollar value of our assets – which we had made visible for the first time – and, ignoring the budgetary impact of restoring the deterioration that had already occurred and would need to be attended to, saw only billions of dollars in assets. We are all subject to this restricted vision. We see what we want to see.
All of this is by way of saying that the term I used almost 30 years ago for accounting for infrastructure has long since been hijacked, and by so many, that it is unwise to continue using it. So, I want to start again with greater neutrality.
First: let us be clear about the task – namely to develop financial metrics that drive good infrastructure management and meet the need for financial responsibility and accountability. This requires genuine dialogue between two disciplines – and a listening ear.
Let’s start with a thought experiment
There may be lots of things you like about the current way in which we account for infrastructure, but what don’t you like? Are there problems that it creates for you or your organisation?
Any maintenance or asset manager knows that the longevity of assets is critically dependent on how well they are maintained. And you don’t have to be a maintenance manager to know that your car needs regular servicing. It is kind of obvious! Yet, when it comes to the important public infrastructure on which we all depend, maintenance is considered dispensable and is the first to be cut in times of financial stringency.
It is all to do with how we account for infrastructure assets. Below is the problem – and how we can overcome it using your asset management plan and condition based depreciation (CBD).
It pays to know a little history. When government departments and agencies adopted accrual accounting practices and had to bring infrastructure assets to account for the first time, (In Australia, from 1989) naturally they turned to the private sector, where this had been the practice for many years. And this is where the first problem arose since private sector assets such as plant and machinery are depreciated over their predetermined lifespan until they reach zero or some predetermned salvage value and then they are completely replaced.
Infrastructure assets are different. This does not happen with infrastructure assets which can be kept in service for an indefinite time by piecemeal, if somewhat lumpy, component renewal. What is the age of an asset which may have some components 100 years old and others that were renewed yesterday? What is the life of an asset that can be kept in service as long as you want it to? These are unanswerable questions. They go to the heart of the difference between infrastructure and non-infrastructure assets and require a different accounting approach.
However when infrastructure assets were first brought to account, there was no alternative accounting approach for infrastructure assets, so rather than account for the entire infrastructure system, it was decided to assign each component a definite life and depreciate it as if it were an independent asset. It seemed a practical solution to a difficult problem. But in the process it completely ignored the key characteristic of infrastructure assets which is the interdependence of the components, where the life of a component, and thus the need to renew, is dependent on the other components with which it interacts. In other words, the life of components is indefinite, as is the life of the system as a whole. This does not mean infinite! It just means that you cannot define a life of a component until it reaches the stage of renewal. So depreciation in this case doesn’t work.
You will also notice something else about this approach. The economic life of any asset, as we stated at the beginning, depends on how well it is maintained, and yet maintenance does not feature in this accounting process. This is what makes it so easy for organisations to cut maintenance, since cutting maintenance does not affect the life of the asset, at least not in the accounting system – only in the real world!
We need a better system, one that takes equal account of maintenance (minor and major) and renewal, i.e.everything that we need to spend to maintain the functionality of the asset. (In practice ‘maintenance’ and ‘renewal’ are really just different points on a continuum.)
Why do we depreciate assets at all? It is so that we can represent reduction in asset value in any particular period (asset value = its store of future services)
Is there a better way of doing this that recognises the distinct character of infrastructure assets? There is! What better way can there be of valuing the using up of asset services than the cost of making it good again? This is what is called Condition Based Depreciation (CBD). And it is available to any organisation that has a sound, and audited, AM plan as a costless spinoff. Put simply, the condition assessment of your assets that tells you what you need to spend over the planning period to maintain service function and that is in your AM Plan. It covers maintenance, minor and major and renewal and is the cost of making good the consumption of the asset over that period. You choose your planning period and it is updated on a rolling annual basis. The cost of ‘making good’ over the planning period is then expressed as an annuity to give you an annual cost and is the best estimate of real depreciation.
Second history lesson: When the UK water industry was being privatised in the early 1980s the argument was put forward that their assets should not be depreciated because the assets were continously maintained. This was rightly rejected by the accounting profession who said, in effect, ‘prove it’ and that is what a sound, audited AM plan does. Unfortunately some do not recognise the distinction between this and the AM plan backed CBD.
CBD was introduced in 1993 and has been well received by maintenance and asset managers and by practising accountants. It was adopted by the NSW Roads authority and by about a half of NZ’s councils for about ten years (until their accounting society called a halt). It is even provided as the ‘modified’ approach in GASB 34, the standard that introduced accrual accounting into the USA in 1999 but it was rejected by the Accounting Standards Board in 2004 and nothing much happened for the next 13-14 years!
Now it is back into contention because of problems with asset valuation giving depreciation figures that are artificially highand causing councils to be deemed non-viable. These councils are now scrambling to make cuts to their budget, eliminating services and sacking staff – and all at a time of Covid 19! So fictional figures are giving rise to real – and negative – physical effects. We can do better, much better!
Would CBD help bring your maintenance to the fore?
Ask any questions you like and I will answer all of them.
To ask questions and to find out more about a national forum to develop support for adoption of CBD, use the comments section below. (There is global interest in this subject, so we might extend it to a global forum.)
In the last post I suggested that it might be time we changed our thinking on major issues like nuclear disarmament. But perhaps it is also time we changed our ideas on how we try to convince anyone to change anything!
I am indebted to Kerry McGovern for the following idea. She spoke of a friend who had argued that when introducing a new and controversial idea, 3% of the population are already of this opinion and do not need you to tell them, 7% are almost there and can be easily convinced, and about 30% recognise that they don’t know enough but are prepared to find out, the next 30% are too busy doing other things, and the last 30% are going to oppose you no matter what. Her advice is forget that bottom 60% and concentrate first on networking with the 3%, bringing in the 7% and then, as a group addressing the next 30%. I don’t know the source of the figures but the general idea is attractive. Moreover, working on these figures, once we have captured the 37%, assuming that the middle ‘busy’ 30% are neutral, we now have a majority on our side!
So often, we focus on the bottom 60% and see the issue as an ‘us and them’ antagonistic confrontation. But what if we were to look instead at the top 40% and see the issue as one of collaboration? Would not that be generally happier and more productive?