Corps of Engineers learning to do 'less with less'
October 17, 2012
DALLAS (Oct. 17, 2012) -- When money is tight and times are trying, families, corporations and government organizations alike can be heard around the globe repeating the timeless mantra, "do more with less."
But, in fiscally challenging times when the U.S. government is looking for ways to decrease spending and reduce funding across its many agencies, that old saying is getting a new twist, "do less with less."
Doing less with less is the challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, is facing; and part of the solution is to come up with ways to transform its entire civil works program to suit lower budgets, less projects, less resources and a new way of doing business.
"The corps' culture in the past has been to do more with less, but the reality is that we can't continue to do all the things we've always done," said Andrea Murdock-McDaniel, USACE Southwestern Division chief of operations. "We have to change the way we do business. We have to find ways to do less with less."
Currently, the corps is responsible for planning, maintaining, designing and constructing more than $250 billion of the nation's civil works infrastructure. But, the budget for civil works projects in 2013 is projected to be equal to the budget in 2009.
In a memorandum from Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, USACE deputy commanding general for Civil and Emergency Operations, dated March 16, 2012, he wrote, "we anticipate that our budget will remain flat for the next five years, thus, it encourages us to seek alternative and innovative funding strategies that can complement the federal budget allocations and meet the high value needs of the nation over the next 20 to 50 years."
Finding new ways to cut costs isn't an easy feat. That's why in August 2011, USACE put together a Senior Oversight Group comprised of civil works deputies from various USACE districts, divisions and major subordinate commands to develop strategies into a collaborative plan which suits the new economic climate and can be implemented at the MSC and district level.
The oversight group has come up with four key target areas to focus on addressing the change in budget and reduce costs: modernize the project planning process, enhance the budget development process through a systems approach, improve methods of delivery to produce and deliver critical products and services through water infrastructure, and develop a smart infrastructure asset management strategy to deliver solutions to water resources problems. The changes are expected to be implemented in 2014.
The first area of transformation, modernizing planning focuses on how the corps plans for future projects. In some instances this may mean changing the way the corps delivers products to its customers.
"Right now we have a lot of planners out there that don't have a consistent workload," said Murdock-McDaniel. "We need to look at ways of regionalizing the work we do have in order to maintain our planning expertise. This may mean that not every district will maintain their full scope of planning competencies within their geographic boundaries but will utilize planner across the region to provide that expertise virtually instead."
The oversight group has also come up with a new approach to planning projects called "3x3x3."
"Three-by-three-by-three means that our projects should take less than three years to complete, cost less than $3 million and undergo only three levels of review," said Murdock-McDaniel. "The idea behind 3x3x3 is that it will ultimately reduce the time it takes the corps to deliver the product to our stake-holders and will cut costs by limiting the review to just what is needed to make our decision and reduce the amount of reviews required for each step of the process."
Completing projects, that in years past might have taken five years or longer, in three years or less can be challenging which is why the corps is also looking at changing the way projects are executed, operated and maintained.
Using a systems approach to operating and maintaining projects versus breaking projects into sections could help save money in the long run.
"We need to start looking at our projects as one big operating system versus individual projects that need to have separate contracts and be maintained in an a-la-carte fashion," said Murdock-McDaniel. "We also need to look at levels of service, does every project need to be built and maintained to such a high degree?
The questions that the corps is going to start asking is, 'what can we do for the public to still meet their needs and still keep the integrity of our project, but do it at a lesser level that focuses our limited resources on the highest priority work and on the most efficient method of delivery in terms of cost and time?'"
One example of this approach is the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, or MKARNS, in Little Rock and Tulsa districts. Currently, the MKARNS locks are run 24 hours a day seven days a week. One thing that the Southwestern Division is studying is if it would be beneficial to reduce the number of operating hours that the MKARNS stays open.
The third cost-cutting measure the corps will be implementing pertains to the management of corps assets.
Currently, the corps maintains millions of dollars worth of infrastructure, but with limited monies, it is getting more and more difficult to maintain each structure. To counter this problem, the corps is surveying the condition of its infrastructures to determine which structures are considered most at risk and most critical in terms of the projects ability to provide its intended benefits.
"We're developing a risk-informed prioritization process that utilizes corps-wide criteria, metrics and decision support tools to focus our resources to those projects with the highest value or return on investment for the nation," said Murdock-McDaniel. Some of the determining factors could include the value of the asset, the economic value of the services provided, the number of people at risk, maintenance costs and the current operating conditions of the facility.
The corps will have to make some tough decisions in the coming months to acclimate to the changing economic climate. But, while a tighter budget might result in less projects getting complete, the one thing the corps is hoping it won't have to do is cut its employees. "USACE is trying to do this in the least harmful way to employees," said Murdock-McDaniel. A few of those ways include reducing the workforce through attrition and limiting the number of rehired annuitants. USACE will also look at ways to virtually restructure the organization where it places work where the people are or vice-versa.
The full civil works transformation plan is expected to go into implementation in 2014, but Murdock-McDaniel says that the changes won't stop there.
"Any good organization has to be able to transform to the current conditions," she said. "Just because we start the transformation process in 2014, doesn't mean that it will end there. We're changing the culture of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a whole and also here at SWD. There will be some internal growing pains that we'll all be sharing as we work our way through this transformation, but we'll get through it and hopefully the corps of Engineers will be better for it."