Monday, August 18, 2008

From my former life

An op-ed in yesterday's Boston Globe about management of large public works projects, based on my experience running the metropolitan area water and sewer agency. (You know, it is hard to squeeze things into the 700 word limit they give you!) I am hoping it will be helpful, not only in the specific advice offered, but in reminding people that it is possible for the state to build high quality large public works projects. We are going to need the public's support for those over the coming decades as we plan and implement other major infrastructure improvements.

15 comments:

Bob said...

I read your piece with great interest. You are right on.

Unfortunately the Big Dig debacle, the Turnpike Authority funding debate, the MBTA fare issue, and the deterioration of the state's infrastructure reinforce the public's skepticism that government can do anything right. This in turn leads to such a lack of faith that such schemes as repealing the state's income tax gain credibility. All around a sorry state of affairs.

The MWRA is the shining exception to such skepticism as you pointed out.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's when the state got the EPA clean up order, the court stepped in, and the Legislature created the Authority. It was very interesting to see and hear the business community's positioning. While there were calls for a less aggressive effort (and even suggestions for different technical approaches), strong government leadership, a plan well articulated, and great execution quieted those voices. This occurred as you know in the face of losing significant federal dollars - in part brought on by the noise from the business community and others to do the project differently and save money.

I hope they heed your suggestions about how to approach the infrastructure rebuild.

Charlie said...

Excellent point about having good, in house staff to really get it done correctly. Most important was the top level who hired the right people and made it all work.

David said...

Great story with lessons for all in the construction business. It is all about the management.

Anonymous said...

Paul, what do you think of the trend of money-hungry governments monetizing their infrastructure by selling bridges, roads, etc. to private companies, hedge funds and so forth? This has started in my area with a private company building "Hot Lanes" on the capital beltway outside Washington - and also managing and charging tolls for them. Just like in the health care sector, I worry about the profit motive outweighing good judgment. Of course, corruption and graft are not unknown to the infrastructure segment of the public domain either. It's hard to know what to think.

nonlocal

Gordon said...

Very interesting. I agree with your observations 110% -- I learnt these same lessons on large turnkey projects. In some ways these points seem obvious, except that many organizations do not follow them.

Paul Levy said...

Dear nonlocal,

I am not enthusiastic about that approach, in that it is usually done for short term gain (i.e., so someone does not have to raise taxes), and then you often have a substantially unregulated company running an essential bit of the public's infrastructure. If it is to be done, you need to build in a strong regulatory and compliance system for the long haul.

Dick said...

There are so many places around the globe that need to understand your basic theme - manage complex programs sucessfully by focusing on a few relatively simple principles. Well written. You have a great career as a program manager if you would give up that CEO stuff!

Jake Vittands said...

I enjoyed reading your article. It is good to remind taxpayers that public works projects are and can be successful with the right public management and meaningful public attention. Good private firms doing public works projects perform very effectively in such an environment.

Years ago I had the privilege to conduct a study on management options that would work the best for the Boston Harbor cleanup. It was requested and funded by the EPA and done for the old MDC. At that time the concern at EPA was that the EMMA Study projects could not be implemented by government. We researched ten public agencies implementing major works and presented a number of options. My recommendation was to have a small fully dedicated public agency Program Management Unit which would oversee a Lead Design Engineer and a Construction Manager. This would allow the design projects to be developed by designers with special technical expertise and construction packages to be developed to fit with the existing contractor capabilities. Additionally, the model was designed for the public agency to develop its staff over time with the consultant resources phased out as the major facilities go on line. The bottom line is that a public agency cannot contract out its responsibility but that it must take advantage of the best resources available to solve the challenges it has. The organizational design was developed with that as the basis.

I believe that the MWRA organization has grown well and has a competent staff that looks out for the best interests of the ratepayers.

In case you missed it, in 2002 the American Society of Civil Engineers selected Boston Harbor Cleanup as one of its “Landmarks in American Civil Engineering History”.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks, Jake, for helping to lay the groundwork from your position at Metcalf and Eddy.

nasov said...

Dick's comment convinces me that we need a foundation that will send project managers where they are needed as much as we need food and medicine. As you say, Paul's busy with that CEO stuff ...

Charles said...

Paul, which was tougher, harbor cleanup or Beth Israel?

Coral said...

There are several states that need to heed this advice.

Jen said...

The problem is that you make too much sense! Hire competent people? Pay
them a decent wage?

Very nicely written. We can only hope your advice is heeded.

Paul Levy said...

No contest, Charles. (1) MWRA was a monopoly where we could set our own prices. (2) As a relatively new agency, we did not have to deal with as many entrenched parts of the organization. (3) We were operating under a Court order, with a very fine Federal District judge, and therefore had some protection from those who would oppose our plans.

Neil said...

I always felt privileged to be on the same floor and get to know Dick Fox and other members of the Harbor Program Management group. I remember the heat you got for having an employee who made more than you did, but time and results proved your judgment.

I hope the State takes advantage of the cover you have tried to give them.