Chris Dyer 21 September 2020

How local authorities have embraced lockdown to get their road networks in shape

How local authorities have embraced lockdown to get their road networks in shape image

The current crisis has highlighted the need for resilience and agility among local authority service teams. Much of the attention so far has focused on the struggles councils have faced in keeping essential services running at a time when some staff at least were ill or self-isolating.

Yet, for councils with the right processes and technologies in place, the pandemic has also brought the opportunity to get ahead on projects on a network seeing lower levels of usage than before. It demonstrates the resilience of councils that they have been able not just to keep up with essential maintenance but even get ahead of the game in terms of works done, and accelerate the whole process, while road traffic levels mean it is safer and less disruptive to do so.

Some authorities have scheduled in carriageway maintenance work, including filling potholes, knowing that they can accelerate the process because there is less traffic and fewer people on the road. Others have re-allocated road space for pedestrians or put in place new pop-up cycle lanes to accommodate a transport mode that has risen to the fore during lockdown. They have seen an opportunity to support more environmentally-friendly modes of transport at a time when these will necessarily be more popular because of the need for people to exercise in a socially distanced way.

Finding a solution

The efforts of highways maintenance and repair teams have been applauded by roads minister, Baroness Vere, who said: 'I want to thank the thousands of highways maintenance and construction workers, and the streetworks operatives, who are all vital to the resilience of our road network. You are doing an outstanding job under extremely challenging circumstances. Thanks to your dedication and commitment, the strategic and local road networks remain open.'

We would echo those sentiments but it is also true that to be successful, these approaches call for a different approach to maintaining the network from the norm. They need an approach that will help guarantee the resilience and continuity of network assets whatever the circumstances.

To deliver that at a time when many employees are self-isolating or unwell, others pre-occupied with childcare, and with some employees having to switch service areas at short notice, local authorities urgently need to be using a robust technology platform that provides the key foundation enabling them to gain the necessary insights to ensure resilience and continuity even when staff are working remotely.

A new ‘digital’ norm

So how can councils and local authorities achieve this? The short answer is that if they have not invested in digital technologies and are still wedded to paper-based processes they are unlikely to be agile enough to sustain this kind of proactive road maintenance activity. To deliver true resilience and to make the most of asset maintenance in the lockdown and beyond, councils need a digital infrastructure that supports connectivity between people, systems and assets.

They need a technology-backed approach that can manage their teams in a flexible and efficient manner so that they can take advantage of the opportunity to speed ahead with road maintenance schemes and reactive repairs work. They need systems that can connect to assets located in public spaces, inform operational staff what needs doing where and when, and notify them of every ad-hoc report made by the public.

The latest connected asset management platforms can certainly play a part here. And what makes them especially effective in the current crisis is their ability to support working from remote locations, something which has become a necessity for many council employees during the pandemic.

If they are software as a service based, they can be accessed from anywhere. They facilitate working from home, key to keeping back office workers up and running and supporting crews out maintaining the highways. They also support mobile working meaning that operational staff filling in potholes or carrying out resurfacing can be tasked with new jobs or have their projects changed without having to attend a depot or central location.

Having a consistent user interface and user experience in place also makes it easier for councils to move staff quickly from one service area to another where the need for regular staff to take time off for illness or self-isolation dictates, once again key to continuity in these difficult times Connectivity is also key in a lockdown, of course. It is easy for back office teams to assign work and for engineers and inspection teams to log when they have completed it. If systems have an open application programming interface (API), it is easy for them to connect with other systems and through such an approach make key information publicly available and keep citizens informed.

Connected asset management helps local authorities to monitor not only the quality of inspections, but also ensures that operations are on top of the weekly maintenance schedules that are in place, in all asset categories managed by the local authority or their contractors. In the current crisis, in short, those without this kind of digital technology are likely to struggle to react quickly and get new projects off the ground. Those with it are in a position to rise to the challenge, drive through new infrastructure projects quickly and efficiently and get the work done.

Chris Dyer is director of consultancy at Yotta

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