Date posted: 01/02/2024 5 min read

Getting results

Globally, it seems it’s taking governments longer to get things done – if they get done at all. So, how do we set up big projects for success from the very start?

Quick Take

  • Infrastructure projects used to be conceptualised and completed in reasonable time, and usually without huge budget blowouts.
  • Globally, governments appear to be getting less effective at creating new infrastructure on time and on budget.
  • More thoughtful planning, and swifter implementation, may have better results.

On 24 January 1767, America was still British, King George III was on the throne and a group of businessmen held a public meeting at the White Swan pub in Birmingham, England. They were planning one of the investments that helped create the Industrial Revolution: a canal. To get it built, they would need an act of Parliament, which they duly got on 24 February 1768. The first 10 miles (16km) was built by November 1769, and the entire 22.6 mile (36km) canal was finished in September 1772. From the first glint in the eyes of the investors, through regulatory approval to completion, the entire project took five and a half years.

Fast-forward to Birmingham today. The UK government started thinking about a new High Speed Two (HS2) railway line from London, with spur connections to Manchester and Leeds, in 2010. After consultations, HS2 got the green light in 2012. Legal appeals caused delays until 2014. It needed two acts of Parliament, one for the Birmingham bit (passed in 2017) and the other for the spur lines (passed in 2021). Construction started in 2020. The first services won’t run till sometime between 2029 and 2033, at least 20 years after the original bright idea. The HS2 cost has ballooned to roughly three times its original £37.5 billion (A$59 billion/NZ$64 billion) price tag. And just a few months ago, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak canned the connections to Manchester and Leeds.

You can’t avoid the conclusion: compared with the canal backers of 250 years ago, with their manual labour technology, today’s UK government is slower, inefficient and dithering.

A steady slide

The UK may be one of the more extreme examples of a government that has lost its ability to deliver results: one-in-seven of the entire English population is on a National Health Service waiting list, and there has been serial mismanagement of everything from COVID-19 (under Boris Johnson) to the dynamiting of the financial markets (under Liz Truss).

But even in better-run places like Australia and New Zealand, the ability of governments to make things happen appears to be waning. There have been some clear successes – both countries rushed through quick, generous and effective wage subsidy schemes when COVID hit, for example – but the wider picture is one of declining effectiveness in getting on top of today’s bigger issues.

Progress against agreed targets towards decarbonisation is too slow, the backlog of green and other infrastructure investment gets ever larger, levels of educational attainment are falling, housing remains unaffordable – especially for younger people – and access to medical care, particularly for those with mild-to-moderate mental issues, remains inadequate.

Disappointment and disillusionment As well as the adverse personal impacts, there’s a national productivity hit. If over one-third of the economy is not performing to its potential – in terms of revenue, the government in Australia makes up 36.6% of the economy and in New Zealand 38.5% – our overall economic performance is not going to be crash hot.

Voters are starting to take notice. While there were other issues, a constant strand of the analysis of New Zealand’s general election results in October last year was voters’ dissatisfaction with implementation. Despite large increases in spending, voters could not see any improved outcomes in their everyday lives and the incumbent Labour government saw its 65 seats decimated to 34.

The feeling extended to Labour’s own activists: Labour had a clear majority after the Jacindamania triumph of 2020 – a landslide victory where Jacinda Ardern won 49.1% of the vote – a real rarity under proportional representation, but even its strongest supporters came to feel it had squandered the opportunity to achieve anything with its mandate.

Getting it right

On a more positive note, what could both countries be doing to improve what our governments actually achieve? One good self-help manual is from the University of Cambridge professor Dennis Grube’s 2022 book Why Governments Get It Wrong and How They Can Get It Right. His thesis is that effective policy implementation requires getting four ducks in a row: a clear view of what the issue is; a compelling narrative as to why it needs tackling; good data and evidence; and a solution that is aligned with the first three ducks.

“Look at the politics of most policy disasters”, he writes, “and you’ll find at least one of these things is out of whack with the rest.”

It helps that Grube has been in politics in these parts and has local examples of well-aligned ducks: Australia’s antismoking campaign, for example, ticked all the boxes, whereas Kevin Rudd’s mining tax and the Robodebt debacle did not.

Four ducks in a rowImage credit: Peter Dazeley

University of Cambridge professor Dennis Grube’s thesis is that effective policy implementation requires getting four ducks in a row...

Think slow, act fast

Grube’s advice could have usefully been complemented by Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg’s findings distilled from assembling the world’s largest database on major projects, everything from, at one end, the building of the Empire State Building (an outstanding success, on time and budget) to, at the other, the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Successes are few, and failures are common: cost and construction times tend to overrun, sometimes dramatically, and benefits tend to fall short of expectations.

In his latest book How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration and Everything In Between, co-authored with journalist Dan Gardner, Flyvbjerg boils it down to ‘think slow, act fast’. The ‘think slow’ bit means thinking very hard about all the things that might go wrong and building protection into the project design, before the first sod gets turned. The ‘act fast’ means go for your life, so that there is the shortest possible window for unpredictable events – a GFC, a COVID, a surge in inflation – to blow your project off track.

From my own experience, I’d add one thing. After the ribbon cutting and the crowds have gone home, attention drifts away. But projects that might have been right in their day can reach their use-by date. We shouldn’t leave Flyvbjerg to do all the postmatch analysis: after a few years someone needs to get out the files and check what worked then and what still works now.