Obtaining funds to maintain and repair the federal government’s buildings and infrastructure has long been challenging (GAO, 2008; DOD, 2001). Senior executives of federal agencies and departments are inundated with requests to support funding for a wide array of mission-related programs, each accompanied with compelling messages and evidence of the need for funding. In 2011 and beyond, the challenge of making a compelling case for investment in facilities maintenance and repair may be greater than at any time in the recent past, given the current fiscal outlook (NAPA and NRC, 2010; GAO, 2011c).
Federal facilities program managers who use an outcomes-based approach for developing maintenance and repair funding requests will need to communicate the outcomes and the basis of their development persuasively to other decision-makers and colleagues. Although carefully designed and implemented communications to staff and upper management will not guarantee success in obtaining the required funding for maintenance and repair activities, poor communications are likely to doom such a request.
Communication is the science and practice of transmitting information in a manner that succeeds in evoking understanding (NRC, 2004a). Effective communication is more than a good presentation or a dynamic messenger: it is about the quality of the message, the credibility of the information, and the deliberations that ensue (NRC, 2004a).
Between the formation of the present committee in November 2009 and its first meeting in December 2009, three events illustrated the importance of
effective communication in evoking understanding of and securing support for a proposal. In one instance, U.S. public-health officials were criticized for not producing sufficient H1N1 flu vaccine and for not insisting on its use (Klass, 2009). In two other instances, proposals to change mammography protocols were criticized (Goodman, 2009; Kolata, 2009), and a program to install smart electric meters in homes was found to upset many consumers (Wald, 2009). Those three examples were not strictly speaking communication failures. However, the failure to communicate clearly made complicated proposals difficult for the public to understand and consequently difficult for the public to accept and support.
In comparison, the maintenance and repair of federal facilities is a less visible issue, unless there is a system failure that leads to a death, serious injuries, substantial economic or property losses or public embarrassment. Nonetheless, effective communication is a necessary ingredient for making a compelling case for funding maintenance and repair activities.
The barriers to effective communication include “lack of a common terminology; lack of trust in the source of information; poor interpersonal relationships; differing individual and group values; and unexpressed assumptions” (NRC, 2004a, p. 63).
Lack of a common terminology can easily lead to miscommunication about the purposes and anticipated outcomes of investments in facilities maintenance and repair. In the federal government, there is a great deal of variance in the terminology related to maintenance and repair activities, in the measures used for outcomes, in the definitions applied, and in the thresholds used to determine what activities fall into a particular budget category. When agencies are communicating with congressional committees, with the Office of Management and Budget, with other oversight groups, and even among themselves, that variance results in inconsistent and conflicting messages, which cause confusion. Confusion, in turn, leads decision-makers to call to question the credibility of the messenger and the message.
Effectively communicating the links between outcomes of maintenance and repair investments and an organizational mission has also proven to be difficult. In part, that is due to the difficulty of predicting rates of failure of facilities systems or components, the difficulty of predicting remaining service life, variation in costs of maintenance and repair of specific systems and their components, and the difficulty of quantifying the adverse consequences of potential failures.
Typically, three predominant approaches are used by federal program managers to calculate required maintenance and repair funding: a percentage of the current replacement value of the entire facilities portfolio; a sustainment model such as that used by the Department of Defense; and the total cost of deferred maintenance and repair projects. Although industry experience and practice are sufficient to support the applicability of those approaches, senior decision-makers may not find them compelling.
For example, it is not intuitively obvious how a request for 2 to 4 percent of
the current replacement value of a portfolio of facilities will contribute to meeting an agency’s mission. Nor is it obvious how a statement that a department has a backlog of billions of dollars of deferred maintenance and repair projects will motivate a decision-maker. In fact, agency presentations to the committee indicated substantial negative reactions by senior decision-makers to methods based only on deferred maintenance information. A strong negative message may also lead senior decision-makers to believe that investment in maintenance and repair is not worth addressing unless there is a direct health, safety or legal compliance issue (Koren and Klein, 1991; Siegrist and Cvetkovich, 2001). Research also shows that a historical record of volatility and lack of predictability is likely to reduce support for investment (Weber et al., 2005).
A related issue is persuading decision-makers and others of the importance of maintenance and repair investments to prevent actual failures of systems or components. Despite difficult conditions, federal facilities personnel do their best to keep deteriorating systems running through work-arounds. The result is that systems seldom fail in a highly visible manner, so the risks associated with deteriorating systems and the benefits of timely investments in maintenance and repair are not readily apparent to decision-makers and the urgency of investment can be difficult to convey.
As noted in Chapter 4, the private-sector organizations whose representatives were interviewed for the present report were able to secure adequate funding for maintenance and repair for a variety of reasons. In presentations to the committee, the organizations were explicit about the importance of effective communication for receiving that support.
Each private-sector facilities management organization presented a clear message on the management of maintenance and repair requirements and budget. That has allowed them to develop the practices and the understanding—the culture—of what such investment means to a company as a whole and an understanding of the processes and procedures involved. This translates into a consistent message that can be understood by decision-makers at all levels of the organization. All of these practices are consistent with other best-practice organizations, which do the following (NRC, 2004a, p. 2):
Establish a framework of procedures, required information, and valuation criteria that aligns the goals, objectives, and values of their individual decision-making and operating groups to achieve the organization’s overall mission; create an effective decision-making environment; and provide a basis for measuring and improving the outcomes of facilities investments. The components of the framework are understood and used by all leadership and management levels.
The framework of procedures helps to align the values and objectives of different groups in the organization. Components of the framework include common terminology, a business case analysis, and clearly defined evaluation processes that incorporate multiple decision points (NRC, 2004a).
Two clear messages that came out of the private-sector presentations dealt with the need to address two points of context and content: total cost of ownership and adding to the competitive edge.
When communicating about the total cost of ownership, facilities program managers in private-sector organizations discussed maintenance and repair activities in terms of system and component renewal, sustainment, planning, disposal, and life-cycle costing. In doing so, they implied that maintenance and repair investments and activities should be well integrated with current operations. As noted in Chapter 4, one way to do that was to identify safety and potential regulatory violations, vet them, screen them, and present them to senior decision-makers as must-fund requirements that should be paid for out of operations accounts.
The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers-APPA, which focuses on facilities owned by colleges and universities, has developed a framework for integrated decision-making that also looks at managing the total cost of ownership of a facilities portfolio. Total cost of ownership is divided into three separate categories: nonrecurring costs (such as costs of planning and construction of new buildings and additions); annual recurring costs (such as costs of maintenance, operations, repairs, and utilities); and periodic recurring costs (such as costs of recapitalization, remodeling, and replacements) (Rose et al., 2007). The framework was developed, in part, to make it clear to university presidents and other decision-makers how investment in maintenance and repair affects the overall value of the facilities portfolio.
With regard to adding to the competitive edge and the bottom-line profit message, facilities program managers in private-sector organizations spoke about the relationship of facilities to workforce recruitment, risks to missions, and the alignment of facilities to operations—referred to as right tasks plus right skills plus right places. That approach is consistent with portfolio-based facilities management, which treats facilities as enablers of missions that can contribute to an organization’s competitive edge, as opposed to being simply a cost of doing business. Effective communication and links to organizational objectives were demonstrated by the presentation of allocation models that began with deliberative assessments of current and future needs and flowed to funding requirements and company benefits. Various feedback loops tied organizational levels together and provided multiple decision points and opportunities for reevaluation and adjustments of strategies as necessary.
As noted in Chapter 4, one way that some private-sector organizations link maintenance and repair requirements to the bottom line is to group maintenance and repair projects by component, such as roofs, heating ventilation, air-conditioning, and fire protection. Grouping all the projects related to a component type
makes the benefits and risks associated with projects more transparent to decision makers. It also allows them to more easily vet, screen, treat, and then set priorities among the projects that should be funded first to ensure that the organization’s profits are not adversely affected by unreliable systems or components.
The private-sector organizations also touched briefly on the importance of building relationships and trust within an organization. Trust—unquestioning belief in and reliance on someone or something—is important for the success of almost all forms of human interaction (NRC, 2004a). Trust is built among decision making and operating groups in organizations by ensuring that everyone has access to the same information. A 2004 National Research Council study found that “facilities management operating groups had gained or retained credibility and built trust at the institutional level by providing sound information, by incorporating rigor into their analyses, by giving high-quality presentations, and by submitting realistic, reasonable requests for investment proposals” (NRC, 2004a, p. 64).
That federal agencies do not have a single integrative bottom-line focus complicates their efforts to build a strong message. Nevertheless, theory and practice suggest that the value of investing in maintenance and repair activities can be more effectively communicated than it has typically been.
Communication theory emphasizes three elements of persuasive communication: identifying shared objectives, defining the approach and acknowledging others, and supporting the approach with solid research (Bettinghaus and Cody, 1994).
Federal facilities program managers who seek greater funding support for maintenance and repair activities should show senior decision-makers precisely how a proposed request for funding meets the objectives of the entire organization, not just the objectives of the facilities management group. Given the reality that senior decision-makers often stay in their positions for only a few years, it is prudent to present the results as outcomes that are directly tied to explicit and implicit missions and other public policy objectives for which senior decision-makers will be held accountable.
To gain more support for maintenance and repair investments, federal facilities program managers will also need to communicate that there is a disciplined and deliberate approach for funding requests, that requests will result in outcomes that are directly tied to their organization’s mission, and that the funds received will be invested effectively to achieve the predicted outcomes. Federal facilities program managers will also need to track how the funds are invested and report the resulting outcomes in comparison with the predicted outcomes. The approach embedded in the Mission Dependency Index and the approach used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described in Chapter 4 illustrate how maintenance and repair requests can be clearly and effectively tied to a mission.
Senior decision-makers will also want to know the return on investment or expected value of investment. Facilities program managers should understand and be able to communicate effectively the economic value of a component or system to a mission, and the cost of protecting its value. To do that they will need to identify the types of deterioration or other adverse events that will lead to loss of mission, the vulnerabilities of facilities to the adverse events, the potential loss of economic value if a failure occurs, the accumulation of potential losses until the system is repaired, and how vulnerabilities can cascade into additional failures. For example, facilities program managers should be able to identify the consequences if a component in a heating system causes the entire system to go down for 2 days in the middle of winter or if a roof leaks or collapses and interrupts research or other activities or destroys computer equipment. They also need to identify what can be done to prevent such situations, how much it will cost to avoid the risk, and how much it will save in other costs.
Program managers will need to be able to characterize and explain the level and types of uncertainty inherent in a funding request. Uncertainty is the lack of sufficient information to describe an existing situation (such as unpredictability of a budget) or projection (such as remaining service life). They will need to communicate their level of confidence in the information that they are presenting and identify unavailable information that if available could affect the prediction of outcomes.
The literature offers several suggestions for increasing the chances of successful communication about maintenance and repair investments. A realistic request is the first. Federal facilities program managers should make sure that their outcome estimates can withstand the scrutiny of colleagues and outside experts. Second, transparency is essential: the basis of outcome estimates needs to be available. Senior decision-makers may support an outcomes-based approach, but they will be concerned that the outcomes will not materialize as predicted. Hence, it is prudent for facilities program managers to propose a midcourse evaluation of the outcome measures. They should also be prepared to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in comparison with other options.
Federal facilities program managers should be prepared to explain the value of an outcomes approach because of its complexity. They should expect resistance from some managers on the grounds that an outcomes-oriented set of measures obfuscates a request in an unwieldy sea of numbers. For that reason, they should plan for multiple internal and external communications. No one should expect that a single written deliverable to senior decision-makers will suffice. The challenge is to produce a set of measures of outcomes that will satisfy colleagues and yet be defensible in front of multiple skeptical audiences (Muto et al., 1997). One way for federal facilities program managers to develop consistent messages quickly would be to share lessons learned among agencies about the messages and measures that gained the greatest acceptance with decision-makers and about the messages and measures that created skepticism.