The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides funding for many infrastructure projects, including improvements to roads and bridges, transit, water systems, electric grid upgrades, and access to broadband. While this legislation allows agencies to champion innovative projects that may not have otherwise been funded, implementing it presents unique challenges.
For one, agencies will need to collaborate across multiple locations in real time. They will require the means to predict and correct issues as early as possible to avoid inefficiencies and mitigate risks to their schedule and budget. They will also be expected to report on project status to stakeholders and the public, manage multiple funding sources, and drive compliance within their teams so that quality standards are met. Given these expectations, agencies must change their approach to technology and how they manage their projects and data.
To dig into these issues, Procore, along with its partner Carahsoft, recently sponsored a FedInsider Roundtable. “The Role of Digital Technology in Successful Public Infrastructure Program Management” that featured esteemed titans in government, including Ryan Anderson, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities; Doug Brenning, Acting Chief of the Construction Services Branch, California Department of General Services; Elizabeth “Biza” Repko, Director of Physical Infrastructure, US Government Accountability Office; Dr. David Raff, Chief Engineer, Bureau of Reclamation; Xochitl Torres Small, Undersecretary for Rural Development, USDA; Lee Jones, Executive Director for the Rural Partners Network; as well as Procore’s Global Head of Industry Transformation and National Institute of Building Sciences board member, Sandra Benson.
Early planning is Essential
An overarching theme of the roundtable was the need for early planning. For Ryan Anderson of the Alaska DOT, this means reaching out statewide to learn what both local governments and the public see as priorities in terms of infrastructure investments.
“For us, the needs are so great in Alaska and the funds are so important, we really want to spend a bit of upfront time doing that good planning work to make sure that we understand everything, and leveraging technology to do that is huge for us,” said Anderson.
This sentiment was underscored by Sandra Benson of Procore and National Institute of Building Sciences, who noted the labor shortage and how an early evaluation of a team’s capacity versus the desired outcomes of the investment can help agencies determine how the deployment of technology can help address the inevitable gap.
“Organizations need to plan to invest in the technology they need but give themselves enough time to be trained,” said Benson. “Think about the start dates of your projects and what needs to be in place to stay ahead of the curve. As we mentioned in the very beginning, this is a massive amount of projects and funds coming, so preparedness cannot be overstated.”
Like Benson, GAO’s Elizabeth Repko emphasized the importance of working backward to mitigate risk. “Because this is a lot of money, it’s challenging for new agencies,” she said. “There’s a lot of new programs, and I think we could get caught in the nuts and bolts of executing. We could get stuck in the Xs and Os of this. I would suggest people step to the last page and think, ‘what do we want when this is all over?’”
Repko goes on to add, “From there, work backwards to be able to measure, to have some interim guideposts, to figure out what the staff needs: the tools, the technologies, the skills. Where do we need to invest? Think about who is at the table and who is not at the table.”
Dr. Raff with Reclamation agreed on the importance of ensuring his agency has resources aligned early.
“Our infrastructure for discretionary grant programs has never seen this level of volume moving through it,” he said. ”We need to make sure that we are increasing our capacity as quickly as possible and that the folks on the receiving end also are prepared to work with us as efficiently as possible to make it happen. Improving our efficiency through the digital lens adds an infinite amount of efficiencies to that process, but let’s make sure that we are developing that human element right from the start.”
Increased Need for Visibility and Accountability
Another key topic discussed was the increased need for visibility and accountability. To that end, Doug Brenning of the California Department of General Services touched on the improvements to oversight his agency has realized since moving from paper to a digital solution four and a half years ago.
“My supervisors now have the visibility and the ability to monitor and take a look at projects no matter where they’re at,” said Brenning. “We also have access now to a lot of data and information that we never had available to us before. It’s been a distinct improvement. We are able to include everybody—all the stakeholders—and have involvement, transparency, visibility to everyone. It’s really dramatic.”
Benson agreed on the need for digital tools for complete oversight across projects. “You’re going to need control over processes, control over data, and the ability to see exactly where your projects are at any given moment to monitor their health and report on their status. And that’s the ideal future state that can be realized with digital tools,” she said.
“You don’t have to work on paper anymore; you don’t have to have people physically signing documents or chasing down reports. The right digital tools will allow organizations to track the project management aspects as well as the financials for complete visibility and oversight.”
Repko also addressed accountability, discussing the importance of using digital tools to monitor whether IIJA is meeting its broad goals by tracking the outcomes and targets for her department as well as recipients of the awards. “You need performance measures and targets to track, to know, are we achieving from these investments the goals that we would hope to achieve,” she said.
Dr. Raff stressed the importance of ensuring his agency is as efficient as possible when it comes to accountability and stewardship of funds.
“We are certainly looking for every efficiency that we can take and ensuring that the expectations of Congress and the American public are being met. We want to make sure that this money is being used for its intended purpose as quickly as possible to achieve the benefits of it as quickly as possible. Efficiencies, data management, all feed very much into that,” said Raff. “Nobody wants to spend more money than they have to get the job done.”
Innovative Projects Call For Innovative Solutions
Public agencies have a unique opportunity to think in new and innovative ways to modernize our country’s infrastructure. Though not without its challenges, investments in planning, teams, and digital tools will go a long way in ensuring successful implementation of the bill with the oversight and accountability these projects demand.