Are Politicians the real decision makers?

gavelI am often told that I should be targetting ‘Talking Infrastructure’ at the politicians because they are the real decision makers.  But are they?

Politicians are like a jury.  The lawyers make their best case and the jury chooses between them. The result depends on the skill of the lawyers who have to examine the facts before them, assess their validity, make a case and then present it as persuasively as they can.  Now the lawyers may not have all the facts, or the jury may be influenced by matters other than the facts – the look of the defendant, perhaps.  It may be that the guilty go free, or the innocent are convicted.  No reasonable person could think that this is ‘fair’ or ‘right’, but it is the way we discover the truth under the legal system we have. Importantly the jury is chosen deliberately for its representativeness, not analytical skills.   To get better results from our jury system we therefore work on improving the system – and the quality of the lawyers who analyse and present the information.

Politicians are like a jury.  Infrastructure analysts examine the issues, collect data, analyse it, make a case and present it.  They are like the lawyers.  The politicians then have to take a stand.  The analysts MAKE the case.  The politicians TAKE a stand.  That is why I refer to the analysts as ‘infrastructure decision MAKERS’ and the politicians as ‘infrastructure decision TAKERS’.  Semantics perhaps, but a useful distinction.

It is also why I am targetting this Talking Infrastructure Blog at the analysts and not at the politicians.  It is the analysts who can make a difference.

Whether a proposal ‘gets up’ depends on

  • the merits of the proposal itself,
  • the skill with which it is presented, and
  • the match between it and the needs of the politicians

All of these (yes, even the last) are within the capacity of the analyst – the infrastructure decision maker – to improve.     End of manifesto!

Question for today:  Do you believe we need to better understand the needs of politicians.  Why or why not?

4 Thoughts on “Are Politicians the real decision makers?

  1. I agree that we need to better understand the needs of politicians and don’t disagree with the way our role is described in the post (a ‘decision maker’ must pitch the proposal too)… but I’m convinced that thinking of our role as the ‘decision MAKERS’ is one of the primary barriers in our industry to making a real difference.

    I wrote a paper on this a couple of years ago (‘Why are we here?’): my key message was that unless engineers view the assets we manage as “just another service” and understand our role as helping the politicians understand the IMPLICATIONS of their decisions (they’re the decision MAKERS) we will remain on the periphery of discussions about sustainable service provision.

    It occurs to me that this different way of thinking demands a reconsideration of the title of ‘ANALYST’ too: I think we’re comfortable being analysts… the frustration comes in when the decisions we ‘make’ aren’t accepted (“if only they’d listen”).

    I suggest we’re better off thinking of ourselves as ‘ADVISORS’: back to the question in the post about understanding the needs of politicians, an analyst can take it or leave it (stick to their analysis) but an advisor MUST understand the needs of the politicians, the advice they give to help the pollies understand the implications of the decisions they make must be targeted to their audience.

    I’d be interested to hear if people agree/disagree.

  2. The choice between analysts and politicians may benefit from a look at those able to influence politicians: Journalists and those attending senate committees.

    Richard Gluyas’ article “Infrastructure logjam ‘must be overcome’” in this weekend’s Australian presents a fascinating look into the assumptions underlying reports of arguments for and against infrastructure investment in Australia. The groups involved in making these assumptions may be informative.

    Firstly private sector investment is not an indicator of demand for infrastructure.

    Gluyas reports that private sector investment has “slumped 8.3 per cent compared to a year ago”. (Given we “compare with” items of essentially the same order and “compare to” dissimilar items, I am left wondering his point. ) The private sector isn’t as bullish as a year ago? And that year was dissimilar? Is it private sector owners and managers or their bankers?

    Secondly capital expenditure is a recurrent cost not an asset.

    Who makes this distinction? The “accounting heros”? Who are they? I am left wondering if Joh Bjelke Petersen made it to Canberra after all. That was his approach.
    If a project doesn’t produce an asset, then surely borrowing is not a good idea. That much he got right! Treasury economists? Civil engineers?

    Thirdly, if interest rates are low (regardless of the reason) we should borrow. Bankers?

    We are now back at the specious argument that interest rates are low, so let’s spend up. That argument is being pushed by advisors to engineering firms.

    Fourthly that capital projects produce assets.

    They should and it is newsworthy that they don’t always. Gluyas’ reporting of Mr Lowy’s “views” that a “government balance sheet should contain capital projects of undisputed potential” makes me question the ability of accountants in the Dept of Finance to recognise assets on the Commonwealth’s balance sheet. Knowing some of them I doubt that. So is it the journalists? Last time I looked accounting policy determined what was recognised on the balance sheet. And an asset is something that produces a future income stream or service potential. Where is the newsworthiness here?

    Gonski thinks politicians are the decision makers. Our at least he has faith in the political process to produce a sensible result.

    So we have the following influencing decisions:
    1. Private sector owners and managers and their bankers.
    2. Treasury economists and civil engineers.
    3. Bankers.
    4. Journalists. Accountants.
    and lastly
    5. Politicians in committee.

    Perhaps the decisions are made in committee by negotiation. We will have to identify the analysts to test Penny’s assertion further.

    If politicians are decision makers and they are influenced by journalists then who is educating the journalists? For they sorely need an education in talking infrastructure.

    • Chris Adam on September 12, 2016 at 11:30 am said:

      Hi Guys
      A great issue for discussion and Ive really enjoyed the perspectives made to date. Id just like to return to a couple of points in Pennys initial piece

      First the analogy of a courtroom is a good one as a lot of our (state/federal) pollies are lawyers. However, my issue with this analogy is that the court is typically presented with a binary decision – is the defendant innocent or guilty (OK, so in commercial law its more nuanced and the issue of liability is often apportioned between the two parties). Either way its largely a discussion on a singular issue, the facts of which can be isolated form other effects. This is different to the politicians roles where the infrastructure decision is one of many and makes an impact on other opportunities that are available. Sure the primary case to invest/not invest comes down to the quality of the assessment and the pitch but the answer may involve a far boarder set of dynamics which go beyond the specific item in question, i.e if we invest in this item then we have less to spend on other policy priorities.

      Unfortunately politicians DO tend to argue like lawyers and present cases as if it WERE a binary decision (after all, this is how the lawyers have been trained). It seems that effective politicians can communicate their ideas sensibly – neither the shrill scream of empty objection nor the dismissive rejection of an idea with no supporting argument for WHY its a bad idea. This seems to be increasingly difficult in the media age but such politicians do need to understand the issues clearly so that they can then communicate the whole picture (and present counter arguments to pseudo issues raised by naysayers with vested interests). I find this trait present at the local level rather than a state/federal level as the local politicians have to be in touch with their community.

      Unfortunately most politicians tend to lead rather than follow and only adopt a position when the community has already made a decision and the pollies see the advantage of prosecuting that agreement to garner the support they need. This is where Asset Managers role is to inform the broader user groups so that more people are aware of the issues and can make an informed decision on what’s a “good” idea and what’s not.

      So I don’t see the role that we are defining here not in terms of “analysts”; “decision maker” or “decision taker” as separate functions – I see the role as all three – analysing the situation to objectively understand the issues and solutions; develop a pathway for addressing the issue in doing so we are taking a position that something needs to change. We communicate this to key stakeholders (including politicians) clearly and objectively. I appreciate that there may be cases where the decision may be made by a public servant (who may be constrained in their ability to engage the wider community) but I find its rare that a politician doesn’t want to have the ideas discussed with relevant stakeholders (to ensure that as many perspectives as possible are addressed to ensure that all major issues (and contingencies) have been considered).

      So, my answer to the question is that yes we need more good politicians but that shouldn’t stop us from participating in the broader processes of understanding and strategizing good outcomes to deliver sustainable service outcomes.

  3. Patrick Whelan on September 13, 2016 at 5:09 pm said:

    In my last job I worked in the planning section of a government construction arm. Our job was to work with government agencies on the identification and planning of the assets they need to progress their business. Each agency needs a “strategic asset plan” with a 10 year focus, and the individual proposed assets need the case put in a business case submitted to Cabinet (via Treasury). Business cases are only ever prepared if the relevant minister decides it is a worthwhile project to pursue.

    So, the agency decides it needs the asset (BC signed by Director General), the Minister decides it is worth pursuing, and Cabinet decides if it is funded. There is a hierarchy of decisions being made.

    Yes, the agency analyses all available information to decide what is and when it is needed. This is presented in a very brief form to the Minister, who decides whether it fits his/her view of the world. The business case elaborates on the arguments, to convince the Treasury analysts to support it through the relevant Cabinet committee. Cabinet decides if it gets an allocation or not.

    Decision makers or takers. it all comes down to decisions at appropriate levels. The technical/agency level decides on need. The governance level decides on policy, and the government level decides on funding. They are three different decisions, and I think that is the key. It is its own form of triple bottom line.

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