Infrastructure: What is the future viability of your Authority?

Chris Champion
National CEO, Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia
Member, APWA International Affairs Committee

The APWA International Affairs Committee presents this series of articles to assist in the exchange of ideas between our international partners. This article is presented as part of the partnering agreement in place between APWA and its Australian counterpart, the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA).

In an address to the Australian National Local Roads Congress, attended by many elected members of local Authorities (government organizations), I was asked to talk on "The Role of the Asset Manager." But it seemed I hit the mark when I turned the tables with my first slide headed, "The Role for Elected Members."

I suggested that it was a noble role for elected members to have a vision of leaving their community a better place when they left office. Their role was to ensure new libraries were built, new footpaths, another swimming pool, more and better parks, a new cultural centre, etc.

The Role for Asset Managers was to build the things promised by the elected members and to maintain existing council's facilities. All pretty straightforward! But...

More than likely, I suggested, most Authorities have come out of a budget process last year where a balanced budget was the result. Pats on the back all round! But I questioned whether any consideration was given to the long-term impacts of the Authority's decisions. More than likely the maintenance budgets were cut...yet again. More than likely the budget seemed tighter again this year. But we still manage to include new projects!

Rarely is a second thought given to the ongoing annual cost of maintaining the new asset or the ongoing staff costs to operate the facility. One certain explanation is that new assets commit the Authority to a higher liability for maintenance and operations in future years. This increasing liability has an accumulating impact on our budgets.

"The Role for Asset Managers" needs to extend to providing strategic management information to elected members on the long-term implications of decisions on the condition of community assets—and importantly, the future financial viability of their Council.

This requires a shift in focus wider than merely balancing the budget each year. It requires effective long-term financial and asset management planning.

"The Role for Elected Members," as the stewards of our community's assets, is to leave the community a better place. But I would question whether in fact, in many cases, we are leaving greater liabilities for future generations. It is essential that we ensure that existing assets are funded before we blindly build new assets.

A recent Australian local government Inquiry found that "long-term viability (of some Authorities) appears to be something of a mystery." It was reported that the most significant challenge to future viability of Authorities relates to the cost of infrastructure and bringing assets up to satisfactory levels.

Another Board of Review Inquiry into a particular Authority had a timely message for us all. The Board reported that the "level of investment, rehabilitation and replacement (at this Authority) is running at an unsustainable and dangerously low level compared to the level of investment in new assets...the Authority does not have the capacity to be viable."

The State Government suspended all Elected Members at this Authority and had an Administrator appointed. Eventually there is a crunch time. I wonder how many other local Authorities are sailing a similar course.

Well-informed decisions for the future lie in having effective financial and asset management plans in place. A key message at our National Workshops, which have focused on the "How To" of Asset Management Planning, has been to prepare an initial plan based on data you are likely to already have available. More sophisticated planning and data collection can come later.

Do you know the long-term viability of your Authority and its infrastructure? And are you providing strategic management information to elected members on the long-term implications of decisions on the condition of their community assets? For more information contact Chris Champion at


Communication: Get the meaning, not just the words
Recently, an American newsman interviewed Saddam Hussein. This interview reportedly took place through two interpreters, so obviously there was an opportunity for miscommunication. There are several communication principles that must be understood in these types of dialogue.

First, one must assume that he does not know what is being said. That is to say, the interviewer must assume that interpreted words may have a different meaning than what has been heard. It is an error to assume that words have identical meanings in both cultures. Second, interpretation and evaluation are based more on the listener's culture and background than on the observed situation. Your interpretation may reveal more about yourself than it does about the speaker. It is advisable to make every attempt to delay judgment until you have allowed sufficient time to observe and interpret the situation from the perspective of all cultures involved. Recall the two translators involved in the previously mentioned interview. What was the cultural background of those interpreters?

Third, when attempting to understand or interpret a foreign situation, try to see it through the eyes of your foreign colleagues. This requires some understanding of the speaker's culture. Proper communication requires an understanding of both ends of the conversation. Fourth, upon developing a seeming explanation for the situation, one should not view that explanation as a certainty. Check with others who are knowledgeable of the culture and situation. Get all viewpoints that are possible; then allow this convergence of meanings to give you a clearer understanding. Cross-cultural communication can sometimes be a difficult process.

Cultural Proverbs:

"Be thine enemy an ant, see in him an elephant." — Turkish Proverb

"Fast ripe, fast rotten." — Japanese Proverb

"God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them." — German Proverb

"It is not a fish until it is on the bank." — Irish Proverb

"Even a clock that does not work is right twice a day." — Polish Proverb

"Never write a letter while you are angry." — Chinese Proverb