Hitting the benchmark: making data-driven decisions in infrastructure

The need for companies to be cost-effective while ensuring projects are delivered on time and on budget means decisions taken need to be founded on solid evidence, but the way we collect, analyse and process data needs to change to improve outcomes, says Guy Beaumont.

In a series of reports last year, the Department for Transport (DfT), Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), and National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) were united in their commitment to transform the way we use data in infrastructure.  As we look to drive greater value for money and better customer outcomes, one vital aspect of this commitment is improving data benchmarking.

The benchmarking challenge

Data on how built assets are delivered, how they are operated and managed, and what outcomes they create across their whole lifetime is not consistently collected or used effectively to improve performance.  We need to change the way we collect, process, manage, analyse and use data to inform future investment decisions, drive productivity and improve outcomes for end users.

Benchmarking – a systematic process of measurement and comparison – is vitally important, but notoriously difficult to implement. This owes to many challenges, some structural within the sector: the bespoke nature of built assets; the fragmented nature of the industry and supply chain; lags in information flow; circumstantial differences between projects; and the use of different construction methodologies.  Commercial sensitivity can also come into play.

Other challenges are organisational and cultural.  The human effort required to collect data has been too onerous.  Project teams can be transient and siloed.  Too often, there is a culture that doesn’t see data as a valuable business asset.

There is no silver bullet, but with a change in approach we can cut through these challenges.  Turner & Townsend has explored how through its work for DfT, demonstrating the potential of an online data benchmarking platform and performance forum as part of the Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy.

Inputs, outputs and outcomes

To generate high-quality, actionable insight on projects and assets, we must start by consistently collecting the right kind of data in the right way.

The IPA encourages us to capture inputs – such as the unit costs of road surfacing materials – outputs – such as a new motorway – and outcomes – which could include reduced congestion for road users and economic benefits such as job creation or greater productivity.

To achieve this, we need to prioritise data collection, mandating it from the top of the organisation and making it a core part of programme governance processes.  This will involve aligning data collection with the ‘normal’ rhythm of infrastructure businesses and using technology to simplify the collection process.

The type of data collected must hit key criteria on consistency, quality and completeness.  Across inputs, outputs and outcomes, we must adopt standardised measures. This means ensuring consistent taxonomy, language and coding structures within and across organisations.  

We also need to ensure that data captures project attributes to add usable context to the primary fields of interest.  Project attributes – such as contract type, procurement route, asset dimensions, ground conditions and design features – should be recorded to give us greater depth of understanding. To fully understand outcomes, at every stage we must look beyond cost alone.  There are wider opportunities to measure performance in areas such as time, carbon, quality, performance, operation and the impact for customers. 

Turning data into decisions

Data should enable more effective decision making.  That means our analysis must be more transparent – demonstrating a clear methodology – and repeatable – allowing constant comparison across the whole life of an individual asset and between different projects and programmes. This requires us to develop new data-centric capabilities in infrastructure.

Analysis needs to be presented in an accessible and easily digestible way.  We should balance standard metrics and ratios with ‘guided’ exploratory analysis allowing consumers to interact with the insight. The point is to ensure that the insight is relevant to the decisions we need to make.

The IPA also plans to improve international collaboration, drawing comparator data from organisations such as the OECD and the G20 Global Infrastructure Hub, for whom Turner & Townsend has analysed more than 250 projects worldwide to develop a PPP contract management tool.

A change in culture

The commitment to data needs to be shared across government, clients and the supply chain: a data-driven culture at all levels.  While this culture can be encouraged by commercial models and contracts, it must be delivered by people.  We need leaders to drive change and support it by pulling in more talent from data-driven industries into infrastructure.

By improving benchmarking, we can enable major investment decisions to be made faster, with more confidence, and with an assured evidence base which stands up to scrutiny.  By measuring and comparing data across the industry, we can identify new ways to reduce costs, reduce carbon and improve performance at every level.

Guy Beaumont is the digital infrastructure lead at Turner & Townsend.