A common theme among Canadian municipalities is the struggle to maintain, repair, and replace deteriorating municipal infrastructure like roads, water, and sewer networks. Traditionally, communities have focused on building new infrastructure to support growth such that policies, standards, organizational structure, and funding programs have been established to help encourage and manage new development. Similar support systems, however, have not been developed for managing the deteriorating condition of existing infrastructure. In general, past municipal processes have been reactive in nature: investments have not been optimized to obtain the greatest lifetime value of their infrastructure assets. Tight budgets and political reluctance to increase taxes have caused deferred maintenance and resulted in deteriorating infrastructure which will ultimately cost taxpayers more to replace.
Fortunately, the issue of deteriorating municipal civil infrastructure has reached the political agenda at all levels of government in Canada. In 2012, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities called on federal and provincial governments to help finance the infrastructure deficit estimated to be upwards of $300 billion. At the same time, organizations such as the Canadian Public Works Association suggested the current gap is not only a matter of funding the repair of failing infrastructure but is also a matter of investment for building the capacity and capability of the infrastructure industry to change the organizational processes that led to the current deficit.
Since the early 1990s, various frameworks for asset management systems have been developed and promoted, and the benefits of implementing asset management activities have been well documented on an international scale. Similar to corporate asset management programs employed in the private sector, comprehensive asset management includes a full inventory of infrastructure and life-cycle maintenance requirements and can extend the service life of infrastructure assets, thereby reducing costs for municipalities. Effective asset management can be helpful for municipal staff in justifying requests for increased maintenance and renewal budgets, and is essential as a strategic decision-making tool for local councils to ensure that allocation of financial resources is meeting the long-term needs of the community.
Over the past decade, the value of infrastructure asset management in achieving municipal sustainability has been recognized at both the federal and provincial levels of government within Canada and programs, guidelines, and best practices have been developed to assist municipalities. At the national level, Municipal Infrastructure Asset Management: A Best Practice by the National Guide to Sustainable Municipal Infrastructure (also known as “InfraGuide”) was published in 2003 and describes the fundamental concepts, elements, and considerations involved in a holistic asset management plan as a municipal best practice. The framework includes a five-step approach consisting of inventory, investigation, condition assessment, performance evaluation, and a renewal plan. More recently, the National Round Table for Sustainable Infrastructure released An Asset Management Governance Framework for Canada in April 2009 that serves as a basis for asset management strategy development at the municipal level in Canada. Finally, in August 2012, the Ontario government highlighted the need for and value of asset management plans by announcing grant funding for municipalities to develop asset management plans through the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Initiative and noting that any future grant funding will be awarded on the basis of needs demonstrated through asset management plans. In addition, the Ontario government has produced the document Building Together: Guide for Municipal Asset Management Plans to assist municipalities in better understanding the framework and requirements for developing infrastructure asset management systems.
The lowdown on low uptake
Clearly, municipalities in Canada, and specifically Ontario, have been provided with the evidence to justify and the framework to support implementing asset management systems. However, recent data suggests many Canadian municipalities do not even have accurate condition assessments for their infrastructure, which is a primary step in implementing asset management systems. It appears that the uptake of comprehensive asset management plans is low.
To further understand this issue, my research employed a qualitative approach to expand the knowledge base for municipal infrastructure asset management activities in Ontario by exploring the extent of asset management in Ontario municipalities. Twenty municipalities from across the province were selected and agreed to participate in the study. Specific asset management plans and strategies as well as asset management policies for the municipalities were supplemented with the information obtained from in-depth interviews to generate an asset management implementation rating for each of the municipalities. Drawing on the International Infrastructure Management Manual methodology, each subject municipality was assigned a rating of minimal, core, intermediate, or advanced. The data was then analyzed along with municipal demographic information to provide a descriptive summary of asset management implementation in Ontario.
The results suggest the majority of municipalities in Ontario are engaging in minimal asset management activities while only a small number have implemented intermediate or advanced asset management practices. As such, the overall state of practice for asset management in Ontario municipalities is considered to be low.
While many municipalities believe that they are engaging in asset management practices, this research found that there is a great misunderstanding regarding what proper asset management involves and therefore, the majority of municipalities have not in fact implemented it. Many believe that they are engaged in asset management by complying with Public Sector Accounting Board (PSAB) reporting requirements, which necessitate a valuation of infrastructure assets. This skewed view of asset management has created a barrier to implementation since there will be less incentive for a municipal staff to engage in proper asset management if they believe they are already undertaking it. While previous studies identified a lack of municipal resources to be the most common reason for not implementing asset management programs, this current research suggests that the lack of asset management education or expertise at the local level may perhaps be a greater barrier to implementation.
Conversely, the impact of PSAB reporting requirements were seen to have had a positive impact on asset management in some municipalities since the formal documentation of replacement costs for infrastructure assets brought attention to the need for a long-term maintenance and replacement strategy. Therefore, PSAB reporting was seen as the impetus for formal asset management implementation in many of those municipalities with more advanced asset management practices.
The research also showed that there was consistency in the success factors identified for the municipalities found to be engaged in intermediate and advanced asset management practices. For example, the presence of a municipal champion and corporate endorsement of asset management implementation were considered essential for successful asset management practices in a municipality. Good communication and multidisciplinary teams were also seen to be important factors for effective implementation of infrastructure asset management systems.
While it is promising that there are pockets of advanced infrastructure asset management across Ontario’s municipalities, the overall uptake of such practices is considered low. Contrary to the widely held belief within many municipalities, PSAB reporting is not asset management. However, it is fair to say that PSAB reporting practices do provide a foundation for comprehensive infrastructure asset management if expanded and refined to achieve that objective. In this regard, any further provincial and federal government funding programs for asset management need to recognize the importance of education and expertise for the successful implementation of municipal infrastructure asset management and the long-term benefits of timely and coordinated investments.
Kealy Dedman, P.Eng., MPA, is the director of engineering services with the City of Cambridge, Ontario. She conducted this research as part of her masters of public administration degree.