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The Key Drivers of Successful Infrastructure Projects

By Drew Jeter

At AECOM, we believe program management is the quiet key to delivering on our nation’s infrastructure needs.

It’s one of the most powerful methods through which we can ensure a positive, lasting impact on people and our planet. From high-speed rail to major water reuse programs, to tunnels and even disaster response, our field evaluates major infrastructure investments holistically to ensure the best possible delivery from the outset. 

As the scale and complexity of the world’s infrastructure challenges are continuously increasing, with the latest projects spanning jurisdictions, disciplines, and a multitude of social and environmental objectives, meeting these many demands will require a programmatic approach. 

But what exactly does it mean to think programmatically? 

Integrating the parts into the whole

When thinking about program management, it’s easy to focus on the projects that make up a program. But that doesn’t capture the essence of our field nor how to ensure delivery of the outcomes for which programs are created. Instead, it’s more about assessing what lies between, amongst and across those projects. 

An effective program management team will analyze the similarities, underlying workflows, and sequence of works amongst the projects — allocating resources, managing risks, leveraging the supply chain, and minimizing costs accordingly. In short, our field takes a long-term view, calibrating and aligning these many components to create synergy across projects and orchestrate a successful program.

Over the past couple of years, AECOM has made a substantive investment in fundamentally evolving our program management approach. Reflective of the world we live in today, our offering is digitally enabled with a combination of strong existing tools and proprietary components we’ve developed in-house. Our clients want access to real-time information, and we enable them to seamlessly access data on demand. To make this possible, we have developed new digital tools like ProgramAdvance, which operates as a shared information hub for our program teams, and our Program Controls Engine, which digitizes the program controls process for alignment between top-down strategy and bottom-up execution.

The number of projects and programs over $1 billion in our industry has increased tenfold over the last decade and our clients are looking for even more support to address the growing complexity of their mega investments. That’s led us to engage with clients earlier and expand our program advisory teams, who provide clients with fundamental guidance on the shape, structure and vision of multi-year programs before their outset.

Integrated, multidisciplinary expertise has also become paramount. Today’s programs can span sectors and require diverse skill sets to meet stakeholder objectives. In response, we’re connecting AECOM’s technical experts from around the world through our Think and Act Globally strategy. That allows us to build bespoke client teams led by passionate people whose broad bench of expertise can drive large-scale tangible change in the communities where we work. 

By bringing together the right people, technology, expertise and bold ambition, we walk side-by-side with our clients and ultimately create something greater than the sum of its parts — a genuinely transformational program.

Putting outcomes first

Our programmatic approach comes to life at a critical moment for our clients: the very beginning of a program. Throughout my career, I’ve seen that it’s essential to start where the program ends — with its outcomes. 

It’s easy to hear this and think ‘of course’. But taking positive outcomes for granted is both common and ill-advised. Instead, the key to delivering enduring impacts is to focus not just on the infrastructure itself, but centering on what matters most: clients and the communities they serve. 

By engaging early, our teams help clients understand their vision for their programs and how they fit into a broader ecosystem of opportunities — from unlocking economic benefits to delivering social value and greater sustainability. At the heart of this ecosystem, of course, is the people the program will impact. We look beyond a typical program’s scope, identifying how to bring communities into the fold from the outset — and to ensure they benefit long after a program completes.

An example of this mindset at work is the Pure Water Southern California Program, which our teams are delivering in partnership with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. As the largest supplier of treated water in the country, Metropolitan delivers water to 26 member agencies that serve 19 million people across seven counties in Southern California. Its Pure Water program with Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts could deliver 150 million gallons of purified water annually to safeguard and expand the region’s water supply.

From the very outset, our teams have played a key role in shaping this key water reuse program, which could become one of the world’s largest. Their first step to managing such an immense challenge was to start with what matters most: the stakeholders and their needs. Working with Metropolitan and Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, we identified dozens of communities, regulators, utilities and other organizations that could play a central role in the program. And critically, we defined the unique outcomes each may require. 

This work spans mission critical needs like permitting, navigating regulations, and securing funding, to social considerations such as community engagement and outreach with landowners and impacted communities, to environmental benefits such as state-of-the-art reuse, efficient effluent utilization and minimal discharge. 

This, of course, is an immense undertaking. But it’s also where our Program Management team really shines. Supported by AECOM’s multi-sector industry leadership, our program managers have access to integrated, multidisciplinary expertise — from water treatment and public engagement to funding and social value — to deliver on these many diverse objectives. 

Though still in the initial stages, the program has a foundation for long-term success. Thanks to early client engagement, we’ve helped turn complexity into a roadmap for tangible outcomes for dozens of stakeholders. In that sense, it’s an embodiment of what our business does best. 

People- and Planet-Centered Future 

However, when we think about delivering positive outcomes through program management, it is also important to consider more than just program delivery. We as practitioners also have a direct role to play and it is critical for our team to seek to reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. 

This is a profession about people, building relationships and creating trust, which demands cultivating diverse perspectives to anticipate the needs of many stakeholders. And that is something I am advancing at AECOM. I support our BeBOLD and the Ethnic Diversity Network Employee Resource Groups in the U.S. and Europe, helping foster an inclusive, innovative culture that attracts and retains the diverse talent driving our success. I expect equity and sustainability will remain at the center of our field. Already, these issues have come to define the next generation of programs, with Pure Water Southern California just one of many examples. 

When thinking about program management, it is easy to focus on the scale of the infrastructure delivered. And of course, this is what makes our practice so rewarding: we get to transform the built environment for the better. But during my 30+ years in the field, I have seen that, at its heart, our practice is in fact about people. Whether we’re partnering with minority- and women-owned enterprises to revitalize Dallas’ Fair Park, or helping replace 400,000 miles of lead service lines in Chicago, the programs we take on increasingly embed sustainability and social value into their mission. These are objectives that we are seeking to embody from the inside and out. And I am proud to help make that possible. 

As a global, integrated firm with multidisciplinary expertise, we are ready to capitalize on the next generation of program management projects – including emerging trends in new energy and technology. Our role is to coordinate, orchestrate, align, and build trust. We do that through technical expertise, but also through a commitment to those we serve — our clients, our communities, and our very own teams. 

Drew D. Jeter is Executive Vice President and Chief Executive for AECOM’s Program Management Global Business Line.  In this role, Jeter is responsible for leading AECOM’s program management business around the world, providing upfront advisory and delivery of hundreds of billions of dollars in capital infrastructure programs for clients across numerous market sectors, including rail/transit, aviation, highways, ports, water, energy, buildings, sports venues, smart cities, the environment, and disaster recovery.