Four performance measures
“We need to spend taxpayer’s money as wisely and efficiently as possible,” says Smythe-Macaulay. “Therefore, tracking project costs, timelines, and other performance measures is an important service to citizens.”
The division tracks four performance measures:
- project delivery cost (total project costs, including design and construction);
- percentage of projects delivered within budget;
- number of change orders during construction;
- percentage of projects delivered on schedule.
Progress has been made, with one exception.
Projects are staying within 5% of budget due, in great part, to a dramatic reduction in change orders. “They’re averaging 3% to 4%, a big improvement over just a few years ago,” says Smythe-Macaulay. “A side benefit is that our documentation is in much better order, which makes it easier to audit projects.”
Project completion, though, is a different story.
Average project delivery time has crept from 3.5 years to 4.5 years. “Having more hoops to jump through slows things down, which is frustrating for project managers and for sponsoring departments,” says Smythe-Macaulay. “But we should be able to make improvements in this area with better computer use.”
The division uses lots of customized Excel spreadsheets, which interact with the rest of the Microsoft Office Suite and a homegrown system called eCAPRIS (for Capital Project Reporting and Information System) that’s written in ColdFusion8 and based on an Oracle database. “We’re using barely half our existing capacity, and there are good commercial solutions as well,” says Smythe-Macaulay. “We have an ongoing initiative to automate our processes, and we’ll be seeing gains soon.”
Minimizing legal disputes
“My hat is off to those brave souls,” says Massey, referring to the employees who wrote the first procedures manual in 1996. “Creating a procedures manual from scratch is a daunting task.”
Massey maintains the manual and also oversees the Project Management Academy that certifies project managers and interested sponsors in the procedures needed for legal and effective management. The curriculum has grown from five to 26 courses.
“With about 50 sessions a year, we’re able to get through all the classes twice, teaching in the biggest conference room we can find.” The live sessions produce valuable discussion, but they’re time-consuming. As a result, they’re being converted for online delivery so employees can complete the courses necessary to be certified in various phases of project management when it’s most convenient.
Anyone can attend. “We focused on project managers initially, but then realized other departments were also interested,” says Massey. “Training representatives in sponsor departments definitely improved communication between sponsors and the division.”
The manual itself is a model of thoroughness. About 80 topic sections are divided into six chapters that mimic the chronology of a project: Administrative, Preliminary, Design, Bid/Award/Execution, Construction, and Post Construction. Sections are quite detailed. One is devoted to the right way to contract subsurface utility engineering services. The manual is also used to organize the wealth of forms the division generates. About 120 PDF forms are organized under the same chronological chapter headings.
“The manual and systematic training have helped us solve the most important problem — building within the law,” says Massey. “Violations of state law were rare, but there were more frequent, unwitting, violations of city ordinances. Sometimes, we would go over the change order limit of 25%, which opened us up to legitimate challenges from contractors and citizens. We’ve done a lot of cleaning up in those areas.
“Most are embracing the division; others are a little resistant. A lot of it comes down to forms, actually. Our PDFs are a lot easier to use, but people forget to check for updates. That’s when they call me.”
Building within the law
“We’ve come a long way,” says Smythe-Macaulay. “The office has solved the big problem of procurement, and we can be sure we’re building things in accordance with state and local laws. I hope we continue to expand the manual and academy to include the institutional knowledge of our most experienced staff and best practices as we identify them. That way, we’ll continue to improve.”
Even in small cities, capital project management can be difficult and complex. Austin has shown that any size agency can adapt the process to improve service if elected and staff officials are willing to be patient and persistent.
Angus Stocking is a licensed land surveyor who’s written about infrastructure since 2001. Comment below.