The importance of infrastructure planning

Wednesday 9 August 2017

This opinion piece was provided to and published in The Australian on 9 August 2017

Jim Miller, Infrastructure Victoria Chairman

With the ever-increasing focus on infrastructure planning, funding and delivery, infrastructure bodies across Australia are playing an increasing role in shaping  and influencing the future of our country.

This week these infrastructure bodies across Australia are joining together with industry and government leaders to discuss key issues facing the sector, including national policies as well as state projects. As communities continually demand better infrastructure, politicians increasingly have major infrastructure initiatives as the centrepiece of budget announcements and policy platforms. It’s a topic everyone likes to talk about, but rarely agree on.

But more focus isn’t in itself a guarantee of better outcomes. The focus needs to be on the right areas to get the right results. When it comes to infrastructure, that means a greater emphasis on the planning phase, rather than delivery. There’s no question that everyone – politicians, communities, investors and contractors – is impatient to get to the implementation stage.  People want to see hard hats and high-vis jackets. But if we don’t take the time to get the planning right, we risk ending up with projects that don’t solve the problems we need them to.

Planning will never be as exciting as construction but it’s just as important, which is why organisations like Infrastructure Victoria and other infrastructure bodies are crucial. Infrastructure Partnerships Australia has been a supporter of the establishment of the infrastructure bodies and together we aim to take the politics out of infrastructure planning. We were established to provide independent advice on infrastructure matters because increasingly there’s an acknowledgement that having an organisation that can step back and look at issues, opportunities and challenges independently is enormously valuable.

So what does ‘good’ planning mean?  We think it means planning that begins early and is evidence-based, transparent, consultative and flexible. 

Starting early is crucial because major infrastructure initiatives take a long time to develop, procure and construct. Last year Infrastructure Victoria released a 30-year infrastructure strategy while other infrastructure bodies  have taken a 20-year (Infrastructure NSW) or 15-year (Infrastructure Australia) outlook. The important point is that all take a long-term approach. It can be hard to imagine what infrastructure we will need decades from now but we have to try if we are to be in a strong position in the future.

Good planning is based on evidence. It uses facts, not speculation. We are fanatical about evidence at Infrastructure Victoria because detailed, objective evidence will always support more informed decision-making. Developing an evidence base requires careful research. It is time-consuming and resource-intensive. But strong evidence is compelling and it will always be worth the effort.

Consultation is critical to good planning because working with others always delivers a better outcome than working in a silo. It too needs to start early. Beginning a conversation with the community at the point of implementation is a recipe for disaster.  But engaging with communities and stakeholders in an open and meaningful way right from the start can help to develop the evidence base, test ideas and challenge assumptions.  It can build consensus and create collective ownership of the outcome.   

Being consultative also means being open. Secrecy undermines good decision-making. Communities and stakeholders crave access to information and making information readily available helps build understanding of the issues and opportunities. It provides a platform for genuine and honest consultation. Transparency builds trust in the work, the process and in turn, the decision.

A final critical element of good planning is flexibility.  It’s a mistake to think that planning means certainty. In fact the opposite is true and that best planning builds in flexibility. It gives decision-makers room to move and encourages them to be responsive to change.  It means new information and new technology can be harnessed to get the best outcomes. Flexible planning recognises that no one has all the answers and that the ‘right’ answer can change over time.

Good infrastructure planning will not silence debate, and neither it should. Robust discussions about the opportunities and challenges of different infrastructure initiatives is always welcome.  But it can hold politicians to account and build community trust in how infrastructure decisions are made. Ultimately, good infrastructure planning is about developing the best initiatives for the best outcomes. And surely that’s something everyone can agree on.

See the article at The Australian website here.