Applying Assessment to Advocacy

Foundation_applying assessment to advocacy October 1, 2020 By: Keith Skillman, CAE

The American Society of Civil Engineers taps into its members’ expertise to analyze data and make the case that investment in roads, bridges, transit, and other public-works systems makes economic and public-safety sense.

If bridges slowly crumble and roads go under-repaired, the cities, communities, and individuals who live and work in them all pay a price—in dollars and risk to public safety—according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. For years, ASCE has scored the nation’s infrastructure status and used the information to advocate for supportive levels of planning and investment.

The ASCE initiative illustrates how an association and its stakeholders can apply evidence to a public safety and economic challenge—an approach the ASAE Research Foundation has been examining through its centennial-year Impact Every Day study.

Grading Infrastructure

According to ASCE, years of underinvestment in aging U.S. infrastructure resulted in deterioration of not only roads and bridges, but also transit services, schools, and even the systems that ensure access to clean drinking water. Inadequate attention to such systems can lead to electrical or other losses; longer commutes due to fewer public transit options; and, in the extreme, safety risks due to failing roads and bridges. ASCE also estimates that infrastructure issues cost taxpayers $9 a day, or $3,400 in disposable income annually, and shortchanged the U.S. gross domestic product by $4 trillion as of 2017.

ASCE saw how it could apply data to public dialogue about infrastructure investment. Every four years, the association issues The Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the result of data gathered for 16 infrastructure categories and technical assessment by a team of 30-plus civil engineers. The report card evaluates data against criteria including capacity, condition, funding, future need, operations and maintenance, public safety, and innovation. Grades of A through F are given for each state and for the country.

Evidence for Advocacy

ASCE launched the report card in 1998 after learning that the federal government would not update its own 1988 report, Fragile Foundations: A Report on America’s Public Works. The association uses its assessment to demystify technical engineering and economic data for public consumption and to communicate the importance of planning and investing in infrastructure upgrades. Today the effort also includes an interactive “Infrastructure Super Map,” through which the public can access detailed information, such as the number of U.S. bridges, the locations of the country’s worst bridges, and professional recommendations for solving infrastructure problems.

The ASCE program has informed public discussion about infrastructure investment for the country’s future and has been cited by presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and other major media outlets.

“Who better to be the stewards of infrastructure than civil engineers?” asks ASCE Senior Managing Director Casey Dinges in the Impact Every Day case study. Dinges also notes the significant presence of infrastructure in the legislative landscape. Member engagement in public policy through the initiative is also “seen as a professional responsibility to engage in these issues, and fundamental to the professionalism of civil engineers.” 

Keith Skillman, CAE

Keith Skillman, CAE, is senior research and content advisor for the ASAE Research Foundation.