What makes public infrastructure public?

DSC06380Most writers who set out to define ‘public infrastructure’ give up!  I can understand why.

Is ownership the key?  Does public infrastructure need to be publicly owned?  This would make definition simpler.  But the very same infrastructure can pass from private to public and back to private again without changing the service provided as, for example, when the Adelaide Electric Company, which started as a private company was taken over by the Government as a war time measure, became part of the public company, the Electricity Trust of South Australia. The generation, distribution and retailing arms were then disaggregated, with some sold and some let under long term leases to the private sector.

 If not ownership, is ‘control’ the key?  Does government regulation substitute for ownership, and if so, what level of regulation is necessary – price control, worker safety, environmental protection? (A subsidiary, but important, question here is to what extent do the regulators work in the ‘public interest’ and to what extent as protectors of the incumbent agencies.

Then are we looking at ‘access’?   For example, rail track, roads, and depots within, say, Dupont Chemicals would be private infrastructure since its purpose would be to provide service only to Dupont and access to these facilities would be limited to Dupont.  Now we may be getting somewhere. Public infrastructure would then be infrastructure that the public has access to. They may have to pay for it, but the right to access would be open to all.

This places the focus on service, and access to service.  This, in turn, may overcome a problem that all asset managers and infrastructure planners have observed, when infrastructure is defined in terms of assets rather than service, we can have a wide differentiation. For example, some would limit infrastructure to transport systems (pipes, wires, roads, rail).  Others would include public buildings (government offices and schools and hospitals) but not private buildings (private offices, private schools and private hospitals). Some would differentiate between passive civil structures (infrastructure) and electrical and mechanical assets (plant and machinery). Others might make a differentiation between these elements but consider them all as subsets of infrastructure, along with fleet.  It all gets rather confusing.

Questions today are:

Is defining public infrastructure in terms of service and access to service useful?

Such a definition may open up new questions for exploration, what might these be?

3 Thoughts on “What makes public infrastructure public?

  1. “Infrastructure” means different things to different people in different contexts. With today’s fluidity of language it can be twisted into a verb, a problem can be “infrastructured” as a form of remediation.

    Context is critical.

    When in the mode of Infrastructure Decision Making “infrastructure” is best seen as a service portfolio; otherwise the options available to the decision-makers are seriously reduced and alternatives, such as those provided by technological advancement, are not considered – telecommuting is a viable alternative to transport infrastructure, but it is not a “better road”.

    For “public” infrastructure, these are service portfolios that can be accessed by the public. The tests for a requirement for government oversight are unchanged – buildings or Google – both are “infrastructure” for decision-makers, both are used by government to deliver services to the public. In NSW, discussions on schools infrastructure should (and probably do) include building libraries or adding more Google to provide the needed services.

    The challenge for government is learning how to oversight technology-based services that provide infrastructure so that good decisions can be made for the public.


  2. Patrick Whelan on August 11, 2016 at 8:46 pm said:

    Personally I think public infrastructure must be defined by the service it delivers or is delivered from it. A road delivers a safe route from A to B, but a hospital can deliver a multitude of different services (which can all be summarised as “patient support”). It all depends on whether you class buildings as infrastructure. Local Government in WA doesn’t, but the State Government does.

    Surely public infrastructure is infrastructure that delivers or houses the delivery of services to the public and to which the public has open, unfettered access. They may need to pay for the access, but anyone can be serviced?

  3. I suggest that happily, the new NSW local government act (currently being debated in NSW parliament) provides an answer to this question. Planning and delivery of ‘public’ infrastructure (whatever that is!) must be undertaken in the context of community-wide strategic planning.

    The new Act says councils are to carry out their functions in a way that ‘facilitates a local community that is strong, healthy and prosperous’… so the question is primarily whether such infrastructure is accessible, not who owns or controls it.

    The Act then goes on to say that councils are to carry out their functions in a way that ‘provides best possible value’. This is where different control and ownership models need to be debated: e.g. Adelaide Electric Co. was nationalised in the war because of risk issues, but once it was over it was corporatised because performance and cost issues then came to dominate. As ISO 55000 says, value is a balance of performance, cost and risk (which changes over time).

    In this context, the final problem noted in the article (almost) goes away because (as per ISO) an organisation needs to align its functional objectives (the actions it needs to take with the budget it has available) with achieving the organisational objectives so we can be very clear about what actions the organisation needs to take in relation to particular items of infrastructure (be they public or not).

    The key issue is not asset or service, but rather aligning our activities (outputs) with outcomes. A story-based framework provides an effective means of doing so.

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