Infrastructure Problems Affect Public Confidence (and It Applies to Elections, Too)

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[Image courtesy of pbs]

Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had a recent op-ed in the Washington Post that addresses growing concerns about public infrastructure:

Walk from the US Airways shuttle at New York’s LaGuardia Airport to ground transportation. For months, there has been a sign saying “New escalator coming in Spring 2015.” The Charles River at a key point separating Boston and Cambridge is little more than 100 yards wide. Yet traffic has been diverted for over two years because of the repair of a major bridge and work is expected to continue into 2016.

The world is said to progress, but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine is much wider than the Charles, yet Gen. George S. Patton needed just a day to create bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it. It will take almost half as long to fix that escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State Building 85 years ago.

Is it any wonder that the American people have lost faith in the future and in institutions of all kinds? If rudimentary tasks like keeping escalators going and bridges repaired are too much for us to handle, it is little wonder that disillusionment and cynicism flourish.

Summers goes on to note that these unfinished projects reflect the difficulty in assigning responsibility or blame to any particular sector for infrastructure issues:

Political debates are often framed in terms of the respective roles of the public and private sectors, with progressives stressing private market failure and conservatives stressing the dysfunctionality of the public sector. The sad truth is that there is merit in both perspectives.

The escalator that will take five months to repair is privately owned. Although it is in an airport, failure cannot be blamed on public authorities. Necessary maintenance had been delayed for years — with the escalator in question even being stripped for spare parts to support other escalators. Now, the new owner has many priorities; the replacement of the escalator system is only one.

On the other hand, repair of the bridge across the Charles is the responsibility of local governments. A combination of budgetary short-sightedness, excessively rigid labor practices and a failure to take account of the costs of traffic delays appears to account for the project’s remarkably long gestation.

The bottom line, however, is that infrastructure issues – and the delays and inconvenience they create – are directly responsible for public frustration and loss of confidence overall:

A government that has to install nets under bridges to catch falling debris will not inspire confidence when it aspires to rebuild other nations. When major companies cannibalize their machinery for spare parts, it is hardly surprising that they are not trusted to embark on voluntary long-run programs to control greenhouse gases, promote diversity or develop technologies.

What is to be done, then? Summers suggests three approaches –

+ first, get the little things right before moving on to newer big things:

[T]he focus of infrastructure discussions needs to shift from major new projects whose initiation and completion can be the occasion for grand celebration to more prosaic issues of upkeep, maintenance and project implementation. For example, before anyone contemplates spiffy new high-speed rail systems, consideration should be given to repairing existing lines and stations;

+ second, account for the cost of infrastructure – both replacement cost AND the cost of delay:

[A]ccountants in the public and private sectors need to develop methodologies for capturing the cost of deferred maintenance and show this in financial accounts for what it is — borrowing from the future. What is counted counts. If maintenance deferrals were made transparent, they would become much more expensive for decision makers;

+ and third, create an environment where failure is not accepted as the new reality:

It has been said that we do not want to know all to which we can become accustomed. A vicious cycle in which governments perform poorly, and so are starved of resources, and so perform worse is a serious threat to healthy democracy … The only answer is prompt and aggressive responses to failure that ensure that it is short-lived.

As I read the piece, I couldn’t help but think that it applied to current debates in election policy as well. Indeed, the “impending crisis” in voting technology identified by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration is an infrastructure issue. As such, it has the potential to affect public confidence and therefore demands the attention of policymakers and practitioners alike. In that environment, Summers’ three approaches make sense.

One could argue (successfully, I expect) that Summers’ third approach – public attention – is already a constant in election news and I’d tend to agree. But the other two have great promise as a means to address election infrastructure issues as well. Election officials are increasingly aware that the road ahead in elections won’t come from game-changing technology that alters the voting process forever, but rather from technology and practices that make voting more straightforward and efficient for voters and officials alike.

More importantly, everyone in the field must begin to wrestle with the cost of election administration – both replacement costs and the cost of delay. Too often, election costs remain invisible – either because they aren’t collected or reported or because budget-writers at every level of government don’t stop to think what it costs to run an election. As Summers notes, this is “borrowing from the future” – an unsustainable practice in any discipline.

I’m under no illusion that this challenge will be resolved quickly or soon – just as I’m not convinced that LGA really will have a new escalator in Spring 2015 or the Charles River bridge construction will be done by 2016. But recognizing it – and more importantly, getting a sense of what it will cost to solve (or postpone solving) the problem is an important first step.

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