Last week, I interviewed Carla Phelps, Fleet Analyst at Oregon Department of Transportation. Carla shared some of her thoughts on how ODOT approached the idea of sharing equipment inside their organization.
Alan Mond: When did the first equipment sharing program at ODOT start and how was that experience?
Carla Phelps: Do you mean outside of MuniRent or just sharing equipment…?
AM: Yes, originally. Did you have a formal sharing system before MuniRent?
CP: We’ve never really had any formal type of sharing program. Mostly, it was just a verbal agreement between crews, between neighboring crews - really - as to what equipment was available and when those crews could share that equipment.
AM: You mentioned verbal agreements, can you describe how that worked and whether they used any other tools to manage that?
CP: Yeah, sure. For the most part, crews had a large whiteboard in their facilities that listed all the equipment that they had on hand, that was assigned to them. They would track it on the whiteboard as to whether it’s being used on a project or if it was loaned out to another crew. So that was in the majority of facilities across the state.
Whiteboard with list of heavy equipment
Others were just simply either a phone call or an email stating who’s going to borrow it. So if that gets lost or somebody's on vacation or whatever, nobody beyond that person knows where that piece of equipment is.
AM: If you had to recommend ways to encourage an equipment sharing culture in other government agencies, what advice would you have for them?
CP: I think the biggest thing is to really focus on the positive side of it as far as how are the crews going to benefit from it. So at ODOT, we experienced an increase in our utilization of our specialty equipment because so much of that equipment sits for a good portion of the year.
When equipment is easily available for people to see (where it’s located, how far away is it etc) that helps with logistics. The usage increases and they’re able to freely communicate not only with their neighboring crews, but crews across the state.
The other big benefit that has happened is, for instance, we have what we call a Training Academy twice a year in Central Oregon. The Training Academy borrows specialty equipment from crews all over the state. Now they’re able to go in and see the equipment that they need, they know exactly where it is and have instant contact with the crews that own it and block out the dates that they need that equipment for.
And then the other benefit for crews is during in a winter storm, for instance. A couple of years ago, the valley was hit really hard with a snowstorm, but the mountains were not. So in those instances, we needed to contact the mountain crews and get equipment down to the valley as soon as possible.
At that time, we did not have MuniRent set up. If we had, that would’ve been a much easier process to get the equipment down to the valley where it was needed for an emergency situation.
AM: What was the rationale behind the search for an equipment-sharing tool like MuniRent? What problem were you trying to solve and why not try to do solve it internally?
CP: I think the number one reason was to increase the utilization of our heavy equipment that has a tendency to sit for a good portion of the year. The benefit of increasing the utilization is: 1) you get capital costs out of the equipment, really ensuring that you’re getting full use out of what you pay into it. 2) If you increase the utilization and the usage hours, we’re able to replace that piece of equipment sooner. So we’re replacing it while it still has value, generally, in hopes that we're replacing the one that have met our meter usage instead of year [age of equipment].
But then again, to be able to really see what equipment we have and where it's located in case of those emergency situations or special events that come up like the Training Academy. Sometimes we've got to pull equipment from all over the state to fulfill the need.
AM: In terms of pushback, what are some common objections you received and how did you handle them?
CP: Some of the concerns are that there are crews that don’t necessarily take the best care of their equipment. So the crews that do are concerned about loaning their equipment out to the more careless crews.
To combat that, we remind them that they still have the ability to say who can and who cannot use their equipment. But also, they can put specifics in their listing as to what their expectations are in their communication piece with MuniRent, once the reservation is made.
In other words, they’re still ultimately in control of their equipment as to who can borrow it and who they don’t want to lend it to.
AM: That's a great way to put it. Have you had any pushback from Senior Management or other parts of the organization?
CP: Actually, no. Everybody has been very supportive of it because they really want to see increased utilization of the equipment. It was supported from the deputy director from the word ‘go’. Senior management has been very supportive and then it’s just a matter of getting the crews to see its usefulness. And once they do, they hop on board.
Central Oregon is excellent at it. The crews there won’t lend a piece of equipment out unless it goes through MuniRent. So it’s really just getting the end users to use it and see the value in them. Once they do, then they realize how easy it is to use and they tend to jump right on board.
AM: Now, after more than six months of use, could you make a summary of the pros and cons of using MuniRent?
CP: The positives: it is a very user-friendly system. It doesn’t require a whole lot of computer skills to use it and to navigate through the site. It is easily managed at the crew level, so crews can maintain, edit, change, update, whatever they need to do to their equipment that’s listed. They can easily go in and take care of that or remove it off the system entirely, whichever is needed.
Another pro, again, just the site layout is nice. You have the ability to see a photo of the equipment that you’re borrowing. You can get as much specific information as you want about the equipment.
A really big pro that I see is the conversation piece of it that happens within the reservation. So crews are able to communicate back and forth within the piece of equipment reservation page. So they have documentation as to what the agreement was between the two crews and when it’s going to be picked up and returned and other stipulations that they want to lay out in that conversation.
As far as cons, I don’t know that I have a whole lot of cons, which is definitely a credit. I think things that we’ve talked about in the past as far as possibly having Assetworks and MuniRent talk to each other. I think that could be a pro.
We haven’t used it yet for a motor pool situation. We still haven’t taken advantage of it in that way. So that’s an area that we need to really dive into and see if it’s going to work well for us.
The biggest downfall to that carpool piece of this is the charging system and having the ability to charge out that equipment to expenditure accounts directly into our financial system. And so that would be the only other con because they still have to go in and enter it somewhere else, but they have to do that now.
Aside from that, the feedback from anyone has used it has been nothing but positive.
AM: Do you have any specific examples?
CP: Out of Central Oregon, for example, they love it because they can list the equipment, they can control it themselves and they know exactly where the equipment is, who has it, who they’ve loaned it out to. They really like the conversation piece within the equipment rental.
AM: Let's switch gears a bit. Is this your first experience working with a tech startup in government?
CP: Yes, yes. Well, in the government face of things, yes.
AM: And were there initial doubts about working with a start-up?
CP: No, I don’t think so. I mean, we went into it as a pilot program just to make sure that it was going to work for ODOT, so I don’t think there were a whole lot of concerns. We went into it with eyes wide open. You guys have done everything that we’ve asked you to do, so so far, it’s been terrific.
AM: We are always interested to understand how governments overcome initial doubts or skepticism about working with startups. How would you compare the experience of working with a startup as opposed to other vendor experiences?
CP: Right! I think the advantage is definitely that startup companies are always willing to do whatever it takes to get the business up and rolling. So in that sense, you guys have always been great to work with. You’re open to new ideas. You’re quick on turnaround of those ideas. You’re eager for feedback and open-minded and all that. I think that’s the biggest difference between a new company and one that’s well-established and set in their ways. Usually, when you buy something from a business that’s established, you get what they’ve got and that’s your only option.
Thinking back, I think when we initially looked into you guys, we were a little nervous of your payment setup because as it was written, it wasn’t going to work for us with crews spread out across the state. So that was a little concerning. That would not work for us because of how we are set up and our equipment was set up. So I know that was an initial concern.
Really, once we got that figured out, it was like, “Okay. Yeah, why not give it a shot then?” I think your approach was spot-on.
AM: Well, those were all the questions that I had unless you wanted to add any other comments or things that I didn’t ask you that I should've.
CP: No, none that I could think of.
AM: Thanks Carla, it has been a pleasure!
CP: Thank you
About Alan and MuniRent
Alan has always been passionate about the sharing economy. From Superhost on Airbnb to co-founding MuniRent, he's always been excited to foster more collaboration between people and now governments.
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