Part 3: Gathering and managing asset information

Getting the right information to effectively manage public assets: Lessons from local authorities.

In this Part, we discuss how local authorities ensure that high-quality asset information is gathered, recorded, and retained.

Summary of our findings

The five local authorities were investing in ways to ensure that high-quality asset information is gathered correctly in the first instance. Local authority staff value information quality and, by challenging and testing the information's continued fitness and readiness for use, work to maintain the information to a high quality.

The five local authorities were improving their systems and processes for gathering, recording, and retaining asset information. Once local authorities have more comprehensively defined what the right asset information is for them and gathered it, these systems and processes will help the local authorities to more effectively manage and plan for their assets.

Local authorities can learn from their peers and other asset-intensive organisations about good practices and approaches to common challenges. In our view, local authorities should be looking for opportunities to form mutually beneficial relationships with such organisations. Relationships like these can ultimately lead to improved asset information in individual local authorities and more broadly throughout the local government sector.

People who gather asset information need to understand their roles

There are different arrangements local authorities can make to ensure that task of gathering the asset information they need is fulfilled. Some local authorities use separate organisations, either through a formalised partnership or by contracting a workforce, to gather asset information alongside asset management activities. Other local authorities use their own staff. There are various combinations of these methods across the five local authorities.

The five local authorities provide written requirements and directly communicate their requirements to asset information gatherers to help them understand their role. Asset information gatherers are more likely to fully understand their role when there are also efforts to establish continued and open communication within strong working relationships. We found these methods of communication effective in helping asset information gatherers understand what was expected of them.

Asset information gatherers better understood what the five local authorities needed them to do when they had constructive relationships with the people who used the information. Relationships developed in a variety of ways, including during formal workshops where the people who use asset information could discuss what they needed.

Tararua District Council set up team meetings for its asset information gatherers and asset information users to discuss their requirements. It also recognised that it does not need to have formal meetings about asset information all the time. Asset information gatherers and asset information users were able to talk freely to each other as and when they needed to.

When a local authority uses another organisation to gather asset information, local authority staff acted in a liaison role with the organisation. We interviewed staff from Dunedin City Council and Tauranga City Council who acted in this role. One part of their role was to connect those who gather asset information with those who use it.

Tauranga City Council staff told us, "We engage at all levels of the contract, we go to [our asset information gatherer's] tool-box meetings, and we make sure we are connected". We heard similar comments from other local authority staff we spoke to.

Overall, we saw healthy professional relationships between asset information gatherers and the people who use the information in all of the five local authorities. Everyone appeared to know each other well and speak openly and with mutual respect. We spoke to asset information gatherers who confirmed that they could ask questions and receive clarity in what they were expected to do and knew where to go to get questions answered.

Investing in sound and respectful relationships with asset information gatherers pays dividends in helping users of asset information and the asset information gatherers understand each other's needs and what each can do to help the other succeed. Interactions such as those we saw help give asset information gatherers a practical understanding of the documented requirements.

Local authority staff who manage asset information understand their roles

The five local authorities had support from information teams that look after asset information and maintain the systems and processes that ensure that asset information flows effectively to and within their organisation.

Information support team members we spoke to understood their role and the value of their relationship with the people who use asset information. In particular, they felt that this relationship gave the people who use asset information a new appreciation of other kinds of information that might be useful for their role and objectives.

An information support team from one local authority felt that it was expected to lead and drive defining asset information needs, rather than supporting the people who use asset information to define their needs. They felt that greater engagement between them and the people who use asset information, including providing education about how asset information could be accessed, would help the information users take the lead in defining their needs.

Most of the people we spoke to who use asset information had a good understanding of their local authority's systems and processes for recording and retaining asset information. In some cases, this helped them extract information for their own use and supported discussions with information support teams about what information was available and how the people who used asset information could get the information they need.

People who use asset information need to have a good understanding of the systems and processes that record and retain asset information. In our view, local authorities could consider identifying ways to improve how they inform their information users about their systems and processes. This would allow information support teams to support and facilitate the flow of information to people who use asset information who would have better visibility of what information might be available.

Caring about the quality of asset information is encouraged

We expected the five local authorities to have effective practices that provide assurance that asset information gatherers were gathering high-quality asset information. We also expected the five local authorities to be able to assess the quality of asset information gathered, to preserve this quality, and keep working to improve it.

Helping asset information gatherers see the value of asset information

Some local authorities we spoke to made concerted efforts to ensure that the people who gather asset information are aware of how that information is used in important decision-making, and how that decision-making would affect them as members of a community. Local authority staff said that this helped asset information gatherers appreciate the value of the information.

Waimakariri District Council staff said that asset information gatherers found their roles more meaningful when they were made aware of how the asset information they gathered is used to make important decisions.

Staff of local authorities told us that educating asset information gatherers on the need for high-quality information was also likely to lead to getting the right information in the first instance, resulting in less rework, and less lost time and money. The focus on getting the right information first time was important to local authorities because some assets were difficult to regain access to – perhaps because of distance to the asset or because some assets, such as underground pipes, had been reburied.

Local authorities need to ensure that asset information gatherers understand the value of their work so they can be effective in gathering high-quality information the first time they do so. The relationship with asset information gatherers is built on trust that they will fulfil their role effectively. Efforts to help asset information gatherers understand the value of high-quality asset information supports asset information gatherers in feeling a sense of ownership of the standards they need to meet.

Challenging the quality and fitness for use of asset information

Most local authorities we talked to encouraged their staff to continually challenge and question the quality and fitness for use of asset information, from its receipt to its time of use. Local authority staff said that challenging and questioning was part of how they work day to day.

Challenging the quality and veracity of asset information is important because the state of the assets, and the level of their use, is likely to change. We spoke to local authority staff who said that continually questioning the quality of asset information, instead of accepting it at face value, helped ensure that the information remains current.

Waimakariri District Council's information support team members are encouraged to challenge the quality of information as an important part of their role. The team challenges requests to allocate resources to gather new asset information. It asks fundamental questions such as why the new information needs to gathered, the purpose of the information, and how the information will be used.

The local authority staff who were encouraged to challenge and question asset information felt these behaviours helped them put resources towards gathering the most important asset information instead of information described as "nice to have" and "might be handy one day". Staff felt most encouraged to challenge and question when senior leaders were open in their support of, and commitment to, improving asset information practices.

Making informed decisions about assets requires local authorities' having information that has been appropriately challenged and tested. We urge local authorities to consider how they encourage their people to challenge and question information. This can lead to useful conversations and a commitment to improve the quality of asset information.

Using technology to improve the quality of asset information

Most of the five local authorities are moving towards using technology-based tools, including hand-held mobile devices, for gathering asset information. These devices are similar to smartphones or mobile devices, and staff found them easy to adopt and use. Staff of local authorities who we spoke to felt that these devices helped improve the quality of the asset information that was gathered.

Asset information gatherers we spoke to liked using technology-based tools because they were more efficient than paper. Local authorities and asset information gatherers said that these devices were most effective when screen options, visibility, and input options were configured to the task at hand.

Napier City Council staff told us that getting people to adopt these devices had its challenges but asset information gatherers who were using the devices, and saw the benefits of them, often became catalysts for adoption of devices by their colleagues.

New and developing technology options enable new approaches. For example, Tararua District Council is experimenting with using drones to inspect bridges. Council staff told us that drones can gather high-quality asset information more quickly while also being a safer option than having people scale the bridges. Not having to close the bridge could also lead to less traffic disruption. In another example, Tararua District Council used specialised vehicles with on-board technology to gather information for its assessment of the condition of roads.

Other ways of improving the gathering of high-quality asset information

The five local authorities used different methods to improve the quality of information being gathered. The local authorities that had made good progress in defining their needs had attended, and sometimes designed and led, training to help asset information gatherers better understand the requirements. Local authorities also gave asset information gatherers written guidance and reference documents to use during their time on the job. We saw some examples that showed asset information gatherers how to use their judgement about the condition of the assets.

Where a local authority had contracted another organisation to gather asset information, we saw evidence of contractual requirements for that organisation to provide training to their own staff and ensure that they had the necessary qualification and capability.

Other actions that can be taken by local authorities to improve the quality of asset information gathered include quality assurance and independent re-inspection programmes.

All five local authorities had well-established formal checking processes for identifying issues with the asset information, including comparing the asset information received to previous expectations and high-level reviews. We also heard about "logic checking" within technology systems. These checking processes had been helpful in uncovering individual issues with information quality as well as more systemic issues.

Formalised asset information requirements and checking processes are most effective in influencing high-quality asset information when they complement productive relationships, discussions, and co-operation between asset information gatherers and people who use the information. This gives wider assurance over the quality of the asset information gathered. The different ways to improve the quality of asset information are important and necessary in their own right, but should not be relied on in isolation.

There are efforts to improve how asset information is recorded and retained

We expected local authorities to record and retain asset information in ways that supported how that information was intended to be used.

The five local authorities recognised the need to keep their asset information in formats that support the needs of its asset information users. By doing so, asset information users did not have to manipulate the information or data to suit their needs, which could potentially introduce errors. It also allowed the information to be more consistently interpreted, understood, and used.

Each of the five local authorities had chosen, or were adapting systems that helped to support, how they wanted to structure their data and information. Some local authorities were well advanced in defining and populating those structures. Asset information users we spoke to were enthusiastic about the structures because these supported a more seamless use of information into their work. Other local authorities were still working on defining and implementing their structures, but appeared to understand how to do this and the likely benefits.

Most of the local authorities had developed or were developing information structures and were involving asset information users in this process. Having information users take a large role in this process meant that the asset information was more likely to be accessible and reliable.

Some of the local authorities that had made more progress in their information structures had configured tools to allow asset information gatherers to directly input asset information into the information structures. This can be an efficient way to ensure information completeness, but care is needed when allowing asset information gatherers to enter information directly into local authorities' systems. In our view, this would be justifiable only when the local authorities had proven confidence in the quality of asset information gathered and those who gather it.

There are opportunities to learn from others to help improve asset information

We expected all five local authorities to look for opportunities to develop relationships internally and externally so that they could share knowledge and improve approaches to gathering, recording, and retaining asset information.

Internal relationships

In all five local authorities, we found that the users of asset information worked openly and collaboratively with asset information gatherers and were supported to do so.

Staff at Tauranga City Council told us that when everyone understands the needs of those around them, it promotes trust and commitment in working together. Council staff told us that simple steps, such as having information user and information support teams regularly sitting together, can be very effective.

Tararua District Council had people dealing mainly with water infrastructure and other people dealing mainly with roading assets. We saw people in both of these roles working closely together to improve asset information across both types of assets. They were sharing successes, discussing and resolving issues, and learning from each other's approaches. For example, people from both roles are looking at ways they can get the features and benefits of their existing roading information gathering tool potentially incorporated into a similar tool for gathering water asset information.

The managers of information support teams and information users from Napier City Council met regularly with the managers of asset information gathering teams. These meetings discussed work commitments and changing work priorities, which included aspects of information gathering and retention. The meetings allowed the teams to understand and meet each other's needs.

Sharing with and learning from work colleagues is valuable and does not have to be complex. It could range from informal "water cooler" discussions to more formal co-ordination meetings and catch-ups.

External relationships

We expected the five local authorities to have productive relationships with outside organisations, particularly other local authorities, so they can share and learn different approaches to gathering, recording, and retaining asset information.

Waimakariri District Council had regular co-ordination meetings with neighbouring authorities and organisations that provided services and infrastructure, including some from the private sector. The meetings included discussing approaches to gathering, recording, and retaining asset information, including new technology options. These meetings also discussed what had not worked well and what pitfalls to avoid.

Tauranga City Council also had regular meetings with neighbouring authorities as well as discussions arranged as and when opportunities or issues arose. Staff used these meetings, and the relationships that formed, to keep up to date with industry innovations, including what technology options were emerging.

Tararua District Council's arrangements for asset information gathering and retention provided it with access to the experience, skills, and tools available from its gathering partner's national network. The Council shared experiences with another North Island organisation that had similarly structured arrangements to gathering, recording, and retaining asset information.

One person told us that the community does not see the distinction between different entities providing infrastructure and services. The same person also told us the community sees those organisations as one large group and are right to expect them to work collaboratively with each other.

There is further potential for local authorities to build mutually beneficial relationships. This can position them well to inform, drive, and reap the benefits of improvements in their own asset information approaches.