Why are customers left out of infrastructure?
The preferred language in infrastructure circles for the people that consume infrastructure services are ‘users’.
And this says it all.
Users are the anonymous and forgotten people that have no say in what is offered to them when it comes to our roads, trains, energy and water systems. Its just take it or leave it.
On the other hand, customers are enticed with a ‘value proposition’ – they get something of value for their spend. Customers can choose on the price/quality spectrum, cheap and cheerful through to luxurious and exotic.
While infrastructure may not be able to meet the extremes of choice in the consumer retail market, there is plenty of scope to do more and no doubt some utilities and companies are trying.
So next time you are travelling on a toll road well under speed the limit as you endure another traffic jam, arrive late for your next appointment you are entitled to ask the question, what service did my toll just pay for?
If there was no service at all, then a toll is just another tax.
The community will fund infrastructure by paying fees and charges provided the value proposition of the service is good enough and can be delivered consistently overtime. Yet, so little of these considerations of the customer come into play when we plan and design infrastructure.
When we recognise the ‘customer’ and account for their needs and expectations many of the problems of infrastructure delivery and funding become far more manageable.
That is why community participation and confidence in the infrastructure planning and delivery process is of critical importance. Connecting major decisions with better and relevant services directly impacts people’s lives.
When projects are accountable to customer service outcomes, this will help prevent inappropriate political influence and lift confidence that proper planning against clear objectives and service outcomes are taking place. Together this can help unlock the infrastructure impasse, win community approval, attract new funding sources and unlock much needed innovation.
Infrastructure assets and services have a very privileged and intimate role to play in our society, because they provide the platform for conducting modern life. For example water for living, energy for growth and employment and technology for connection and coordination.
Shifting the focus of infrastructure planning from its physical attributes to the services it is intended to deliver is a critical reform that will require a different procurement approach and culture of planning within government. The dividend of this reform, however, will better reflect the community’s expectations and help justify the investment and disruption caused during construction.
The increasing reliance on private investors to fund public infrastructure places an even greater imperative on governments to have the ability to interact, negotiate and secure outcomes in the best interest of the community. This requires strong institutional architecture, including anti-corruption agencies. Governments need to be open and transparent about the relationship with private sector participants and the value such participants provide to overall infrastructure development.
Jurisdictions need to be frank about success and failure; and to demonstrate they are capable of learning lessons from the past and can transfer best practice from other projects and jurisdictions.
Australia has an alarming lack of information, data and culture of review (benchmarking) of the performance of its infrastructure. There is an urgent need to build a body of evidence that will inform future infrastructure policy and decisions of past lessons and successes.
Public trust and confidence within a jurisdiction can improve when there is demonstrable success of previous projects. Jurisdictions should recognise public trust and confidence is cumulative, and every project successfully delivered builds trust one-step at a time. Therefore, infrastructure planning must ensure a very high level of competence in delivery, and genuine and in-depth consultation occurs to take account the needs of the customer and the community customers live in.
Public infrastructure in the eyes of the community expects a very high level of accountability and transparency. Of course government must ensure that legitimate commercial-in- confidence considerations are protected but this should not be used as a means of blocking the ability of the community to have an appropriate degree of scrutiny to ensure the value proposition of infrastructure is relevant and good value.