Dec 5, 2012

Why urban infrastructure O&M system needs increased autonomy?

An exemplary case of PPP project - surface transport !

Though there are already provisions which suggests autonomy in O&M contracts to certain extent at present, but apparently there is further need of functional, financial and decision making autonomy in operation and maintenance (O&M)plan including concerned O&M agency, regarding any given infrastructure project, specially were public safety is a concern, an autonomy to the extent beyond conventional scopes of O&M contracts.

Why this thought even worth consideration and review? Because lack of autonomy can restrict O&M agencies to take prompt critical decisions or can encourage them to unnecessarily prolong, manipulate or ignore some of the important decisions and actions demanding urgency and which are vital for health of project and safety of users and which might otherwise get delayed caught in the complexity of paperwork. For instance, an expressway O&M agency can escape from taking responsibility of mishaps and causalities blaming it to faulty road design by the original infrastructure design agency involved, while design agency can shy away from responsibility saying safe operation of system is in scope of O&M agency or may be it is due to bad maintenance, meanwhile life of commuters would be constantly at stake. But with higher level of autonomy O&M agency can take vital decisions and actions on their own like- post functional design modification in case of expressway, infrastructure retrofit, conducting safety audit and associated changes, life safety installations and safety enforcement measures which can prevent those traffic accidents for example. Also autonomy comes with implied accountability, so now the O&M agency while enjoying the autonomy will also feel a sense of responsibility both morally and legally towards minimizing and preventing those expressway mishaps and can be held accountable in case  such events occur and their performance can also be linked to their monetary gain/ penalty provisions, credit rating ranking, pre-mature termination of contract etc. hence creating a scope of active, innovative and higher performance standards in this new O&M environment.  

There has to be increased level of autonomy for O&M agencies to innovate and to take certain fiscal decisions on their own, which might be vital for public safety and absorption of unperceived growth, autonomy of technology integration to leverage technological opportunities which might have been unavailable at the time of conception and design of project, autonomy to conduct required design changes and retrofit based on peculiar first hand regional experiences gained in course of operation. Of course this strengthened decisive power of should come with certain administrative supervision and stakeholder’s say.

This allocation of autonomy seems justifiable because no one else knows the actual functional and fiscal health of said project, regional and local constraints and infrastructure gaps etc. better than those who are operating and maintaining the said project and assets 24X7 and are in constant contact of end users, knowing it better than even those who originally conceived and built the project. Autonomy if constrained or hampered or for namesake, specially at policy and post functional level, scope of O&M assumes a mechanical and procedural significance and restrict itself only to the often under-perceived operational efficiency and safety level just to the rigid, predefined performance standard with little scope for innovation in terms of physical infrastructure modification, procedural and strategic retrofit and scope of maintenance remains only limited to restoring the degraded infrastructure to its somewhat originally perceived state. O&M will have to be much more than the established notion of routine work as prescribed in the O&M manual or as described in present scope of contract. A wholesome O&M process specially in urban and regional infrastructure projects has to be a dynamic process, a learning experience, continually reinventing itself as per dynamic regional growth, absorbing economic changes and technological advancement, streamlined to the long term vision of regional growth. 
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