Poor leadership and a lack of quality staff in key roles are among the most significant barriers to good asset management in local government, according to a report.
Author Brianna Aris surveyed 132 local government professionals on the state of their organisation’s asset management.
Aris, who is Senior Civil Engineering Officer of Assets at the City of Albany, says her findings reveal that a poor asset management culture is systemic throughout many councils.
“Asset management isn’t always embraced, and I think that we take a lot of steps forward and then collapse back again,” she explains.
“My motivation behind this report was to find out how we can help asset management in local government become more productive.”
The report Quantifying Major Barriers to Good Asset Management Practice in Local Government was completed as part of Aris’s Bachelor of Engineering Technology (Professional Honours in Infrastructure Asset Management), with the Centre for Pavement Engineering Education and University of Tasmania.
Respondents represented a cross section of organisations, working across management, CEO, executive and officer roles.
“I wanted to get an idea of the perceptions around asset management, so this wasn’t just aimed at asset management staff, but also included CEOs and executives,” Aris says.
Aris looked at potential barriers to good asset management from three different viewpoints: financial, political and organisational.
The top five barriers identified through the survey were:
1. A lack of leadership
2. Budget constraints
3. Lack of well-qualified key staff
4. Poor communication
5. Increasing service levels
Aris says her own experiences working in local government, now at the City of Albany and formerly with the Shire of Broome, indicated organisational issues were at the heart of the problem.
“The results suggested it was all about support from above, it was all about silos within organisations and lack of communication, and of course the old chestnut of engineers and accountants not getting on was challenged,” she says.
Of course, budget constraints are a perennial issue – even more so in post-mining boom Western Australia.
“There was a lot of contraction in budgets, particularly in Western Australia with the end of the peak mining industry,” Aris says.
“It was a two edged sword, because we were able to attract technical staff because the mines were letting them go, so there was that advantage, but we had no money.”
Lack of leadership
However, the survey results clearly indicated a lack of leadership around asset management was considered the highest barrier.
“Predominantly, that was about council and the executive – but there has to be leadership from all directions,” Aris says.
“I can’t sit here as an asset management professional, and think, ‘My CEO’s not interested, so to hell with it’."
Aris says all asset management officers have a responsibility to lead their organisation by improving asset management practices, despite the barriers.
“Leadership is not only the remit of those higher up in local governments. I believe that authentic leadership is important and effective at all levels,” she says.
A number of survey respondents strongly recommended more training for elected members, executive and up-skilling of other key asset management staff as a solution.
Lack of quality staff in key roles and poor communication
In smaller local governments, one staff member has to be an expert in all things, which can mean asset management skills are left out in the cold, Aris says.
“It’s just about where local government’s priorities are – if you’re a small shire and you’ve got 10,000 people and a small rate base, you can’t afford to have an asset manager and a manager of engineering,” she says.
“You can say ‘I want a really good engineer as my manager of engineering, because I want roads built well’. Or, you can have someone with really good strategic asset management skills, and put senior civil engineers around them to build the roads.”
Aris says the majority of job advertisements for asset management positions call for an engineering qualification, while ignoring the essential skills needed for strategic asset management.
“To be a co-ordinator of assets and to get strategic asset management happening, you need leadership skills, you need communication skills, you need to have data skills, you need to have analysis skills,” she says.
“My research indicated that, as an industry, we may not have this balance of skills right yet.”
Aris says there is room for an asset management perception survey of elected members.
“Comments indicated elected members are looking at asset management from a different perspective – they’re looking at keeping the community happy, and they’re only looking in the short term,” she says.
View the video wrap-up of the report:
Brianna Aris would like to sincerely thank all the respondents who generously gave their time to complete the survey.