Utilities: The unkindest cut

We often spot recurring themes in audits – questionable data quality, inadequate prioritization, limited capacity and performance that falls short of standards.


All of these issues were present in an audit we just read from the Office of the City Auditor in Austin. The topic was City Utility Street Cut Repairs. The problem: A repair backlog of 3,864 utility cut patches. These are patches put in place by Austin Water, when it cuts into the street to fix leaky water pipes, for example.


An average of 185 utility cuts are made each month. Thirty days after the temporary patch is in place, the Austin Public Works Department takes over responsibility for fixing the street in a more permanent way. City code says temporary patches shouldn’t be in place for more than 90 days. The audit team looked at ten randomly selected patches and found not one had met that standard.


The audit shows how problems can be built into the staffing structure of city departments.


It should not really be a surprise to anyone that there’s a backlog of repairs. While Austin water makes 185 cuts each month, Public Works, with a repair staff about half the size, fixes an average of about 89 per month. A similar situation was found by the Austin audit office in 1998.


Resource shortages for Public Works are compounded by vacancies in the department. It did start to contract out some of its work in 2016, but it doesn’t have good enough data to evaluate whether more contracting would be cost effective or whether the solution instead would be more staff. Another problem: the audit found that prioritization was weak. Although some patches are more treacherous than others, there is no process to move more dangerous patches to the front of the cue. As the audit points out, some of the temporary patches “are unreliable and possibly unsafe due to issues with age or height.”


Data, in general, was cited a number of times as a problem in this audit. Information on cost effectiveness is missing and there are data inconsistencies in the records held by Public Works and Austin Water. These problems make it difficult to get a consistent and accurate read on the true size of the backlog. “As a result, Public Works management cannot be sure the information they report or use for planning or resource allocation is accurate,” the audit says.

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