But I was given pause for thought by a comment from 'Wellington Haiku' - I don't know for sure who that is, but one Wellington organisation is given to announcing its research in haiku - who referred me to the work done by Bent Flyvbjerg at Oxford University's Saïd Business School, and in particular to his paper, "Survival of the unﬁttest: why the worst infrastructure gets built—and what we can do about it".
The gist of his argument is that infrastructure projects typically cost far more, and are far less productive, than imagined in their planning:
Cost overruns in the order of 50 per cent in real terms are common for major infrastructure, and overruns above 100 per cent are not uncommon. Demand and beneﬁt forecasts that are wrong by 20–70 per cent compared with actual development are common.The reason that they turn out that way, is that infrastructure planners have been gaming the people who pay for the projects:
promoters and forecasters intentionally use the following formula in order to secure approval and funding for their projects:
underestimated costs+overestimated beneﬁts=funding
Using this formula...results in an inverted Darwinism, i.e the survival of the unﬁttest. It is not the best projects that get implemented, but the projects that look best on paper. And the projects that look best on paper are the projects with the largest cost underestimates and beneﬁt overestimates, other things being equal...Therefore the projects that have been made to look best on paper in this manner become the worst, or unﬁttest, projects in reality, in the sense that they are the very projects that will encounter most problems during construction and operations in terms of the largest cost overruns,beneﬁt shortfalls, and risks of non-viability.And Flyvbjerg goes on to recommend a whole series of sensible improvements to the governance of infrastructure investment, including the compulsory introduction of private capital as 'skin in the game' to incentivise better financial performance.
I have to say, post Flyvbjerg, my optimism about infrastructure has taken something of a knock. But as I brooded a bit, I'm not sure that everything Flyvbjerg said made total sense to me.
One thing that seemed a bit strange was that, if a high proportion of infrastructure budgets really do run well adrift of plan, why isn't there more of a political fuss? We've had a few projects go awry in New Zealand - the INCIS police computer system, the Novopay payroll system - and they've invariably been heavily picked over afterwards (both were subject to formal ministerial inquiries). Why, if they really do systematically go off the rails, aren't we seeing infrastructure projects in the dock every other day?
And I'm not sure why the project paymasters would keep getting gulled - you'd think they'd wise up, and that there'd be a kind of arms race to build ever stronger protection against ever more blatant puffery. At one institution I know, for example, projects needed to meet an internal rate of return target of 19% and a payback period of two years - ruled designed to filter out all but the strongest cases (though people still tried brazen reverse-engineering of project numbers to fit the criteria). The NZ Treasury's required 8% real rate of return is arguably a similar device.
And even if project promoters are gaming the system over and over, you'd think the best projects would still be the ones most easy to manipulate to show supersized net benefits, and it could well be that even though they didn't live up to the hype, they were still well worth doing. The metric of success Flyvbjerg uses (actual versus expected usage) is only a partial view of overall value: what if a new road was underutilised relative to forecast, but was used enough to relieve a major bottleneck on a big highway? What if (like the Auckland Harbour Bridge) it unleashed a whole new avenue of development wholly outside the original cost-benefit calculus?
All that said, Flyvbjerg's general point must surely be right: people need to be realists about the often exaggerated anticipated benefits from infrastructure. But my point about unanticipated benefits in at least some cases must surely be right, too: who'd have thought, for example, that the Plain Old Telephone Service ('POTS') carrying voice over copper wires would end up supporting ADSL and VDSL speed broadband?
The reality is that every infrastructure investment, like any other investment, extinguishes some previous options, and creates new ones, and we may not even know what some of those options are, let alone their value, until after the event (maybe long after, as with the Harbour Bridge). As I said in the original post, "That doesn't mean that every social planner should have free rein to add on arbitrary benefits on a "build it and they will come" basis". Investment is an experiment, with uncertain results: there will be losers (and probably more losers than I previously thought), but if you make an over-cautious number of experiments, you'll also truncate your chances of the unanticipated payoffs.