One of the best things done recently by governments on both sides of the Tasman has been the establishment of Productivity Commissions tasked with investigating the economic efficiency (or lack thereof) of various policy areas. The NZ Productivity Commission, which only started up in 2011, has been diligently building an evidence base on issues as diverse as international freight, service sector productivity, and land use policies.
Transportblog reviewed their recent inquiry on using land for housing, which had some excellent insights and recommendations. Not all of the recommendations made by the Commission have been picked up (yet), but they form a useful basis for future policymaking.
We’ve been paying attention to the NZ Productivity Commission, but it’s also worth keeping an eye on the Australian version, which is grappling with many of the same issues. They recently published a nice summary of their 2014 inquiry into public infrastructure, which highlighted some key steps for improving the efficiency of public investment.
The Commission highlighted the scale of capital investment. Australia’s expecting to spend megabucks on new capital investment, most of which will go into the built environment – i.e. houses, roads, railways, water infrastructure, etc:
In 2013-14, there was an estimated $5.1 trillion or more of installed capital that was available for use in the Australian economy — over three times the value of production in that year (figure 3.1, top panel). Over the next 50 year period, the Commission has estimated that new capital investment will be more than five times the cumulative investment made over the last half century to around $38 trillion in today’s prices (PC 2013).
The largest component of today’s installed capital is in the form of non-dwelling constructions — which consists of non-residential buildings (i.e. buildings other than dwellings, including fixtures, facilities and equipment integral to the structure) and other structures (including streets, sewers, railways and runways) — which amount to over $2 trillion (or 43 per cent of the total). The next single most important component relates to dwellings, amounting to around 35 per cent of the total installed capital (figure 3.1, bottom panel).
Given this, it’s important to get new public investments right:
Additions to the stock of capital will usually increase output and add to labour productivity. However, for productivity to improve, the growth in output must exceed the growth in inputs. Poorly selected projects can detract from productivity as the resources they use would have delivered a higher output elsewhere in the economy.
The Commission had some stern words about the quality of decision-making about public investments. Their analysis suggests that “there is considerable scope to improve the quality and efficiency of government investment in public infrastructure investment in Australia”.
This could probably be translated as: “You guys are doing a bunch of stupid stuff. For the love of god, please stop it!”
So how could infrastructure investment improve? The Commission discusses public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a potentially useful option, but observes that they are not a magic panacea for bad project selection. In some cases, the PPP process can drive governments towards costly, oversized solutions:
Most relevant to enhancing the efficiency of the provision of public infrastructure is improving project selection processes. Australia’s cities and towns generally function adequately and assets undergo usual maintenance, although problems have emerged in some major cities. Nevertheless, the Commission found numerous examples of poor value for money arising from inadequate project selection and prioritisation. In particular, there was a bias toward large investments despite the returns to public investment often being higher for smaller, more incremental investments. In part, this was because the private sector is more interested in financing large investments (due to the costs involved), and governments have increasingly seen public private partnerships (PPPs) as a way of harnessing not just finance, but expertise in project delivery and operation.
Furthermore, the fact that PPPs typically involve complex negotiations and ongoing relationships between governments and private investors can make it difficult to properly assess costs, benefits, and risks. In essence, this creates a situation in which private sector involvement does not result in a better outcome, due to muddled incentives.
The Commission concluded by encouraging Australian public infrastructure providers to conduct rigorous, consistent cost-benefit analysis for all major projects and – equally important – to publish the results prior to committing to a project:
A key recommendation of the report was that governments should undertake a comprehensive and rigorous social cost—benefit analysis to all public infrastructure investment projects above $50 million. Such analyses should be publicly released during the commitment phase and be made available for due diligence. In general, cost-benefit analyses should be done prior to any in-principle commitment to a project or as soon as practicable thereafter.
Doing this would have avoided the farcical situation facing Melbourne’s East-West Link, an A$8.6 billion project to build a massive tunnel to link up several motorways:
As far as I can tell, the project was announced and confirmed before a business case was completed or published. As a result, nobody really knew whether it was a good idea. The project was subsequently cancelled, albeit at a significant cost for cancelling the contract.
Do the figures stack up?
The truth is that we don’t know. Those against all new major road projects may not care about the figures one way or the other, but those who follow these things closely say the project is unprecedented for its lack of transparency. It’s been a nagging political problem for the government, and a key reason the East West Link is so contentious.
“Normally we would see more detail, and historically it’s been much clearer on what basis we are proceeding with projects like this,” [infrastructure consultant William] McDougall says.
“This is new for Australia,” says [transport policy lecturer John] Stone. “The fact that through all these court cases and all this political focus the government has never released its business plan – it released a back of envelope estimate – means probably there’s nothing to back it up. If they had a better number they would have put it out there.“
Fortunately, New Zealand seems to do a better job when it comes to consistent cost-benefit analysis of transport projects (although we don’t always take the findings seriously). However, there is always room for improvement. The Commission highlights three key factors that can undermine the effectiveness of cost-benefit analysis:
- Optimism bias. There is a systematic tendency for project appraisers conducting cost-benefit analysis to be overly optimistic — the bias is toward overstating benefits, and understating timings and costs, both with respect to initial capital commitment and operation costs. Over estimates of traffic forecasts on toll roads and tunnels are a particular problem…
- Treatment of risk and uncertainty. Costs and benefits are expected values based on the probability of different outcomes. Cost-benefit ratios may be sensitive to certain assumptions which have to be made without sufficient evidential support. For example, inappropriate assumptions about allowance for project risk in the discount rate (that is, the risk premium) may alter the ranking of projects and lead to suboptimal project selection…
- Treatment of ‘wider economic benefits’. Infrastructure projects create direct benefits for users of the resulting service provided by public infrastructure. Where cost-benefit analysis is done, such benefits are routinely estimated and included. However, projects can also create wider economic benefits and costs. For example, investment in transportation infrastructure brings consumers closer to more businesses, potentially facilitating greater competition and leading to a more innovative and a dynamic economy. However, such wider economic benefits are hard to quantify and their inclusion in a cost-benefit analysis has the potential to show one project to be superior to another purely because of differences in the way such benefits are defined and estimated. Cautious and consistent treatment across options of wider economic benefits is warranted.
Transportblog’s highlighted a few of these issues in the past. I’ve discussed optimism bias on the benefits/usage side here and optimism bias on costs here and here. Stu’s covered off treatment of wider economic benefits here. And it’s probably high time we took another look at discount rates / risk premia…