Tuesday 15 October 2019

Conor Skehan: 'Why do so many things go wrong with public projects? Answer: they don't'

In Ireland, we are overly obsessed with failure instead of pointing to successes, writes Conor Skehan

Entrance to the Limerick tunnel
Entrance to the Limerick tunnel

Conor Skehan

Real wisdom is not giving the right answer, but asking the right question instead. It's amazing how much time, effort and expense is expended in investigating cost overruns or delays of public projects.

Perhaps investigations are necessary to "learn lessons and avoid future mistakes". Perhaps they provide the instant gratification of being seen to do something in a time of crisis. Investigations may even be the modern equivalent of a public hanging - combining schadenfreude with feelings of justifiable superiority and righteousness.

In the end, investigations usually uncover a series of factors that include bad luck, poor judgment, ineptitude, mixed with the venialities of groupthink, greed, pride and cowardice. None of these is good - the only lesson is that these should be avoided.

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Getting something right is much more difficult than merely avoiding bad things. Getting things right - especially on large complex public projects and developments - requires great skill and knowledge.

Getting things right is about expecting mistakes, anticipating bad luck and preparing for venialities.

There is no shortage of planners, professional project managers and procurement specialists. Our senior public servants hold an abundance of institutional memory about how to avoid trouble while social media grants our media access to unprecedented early public warning about emerging problems.

The elements of success are all present - so why do things still go wrong?

They don't.

Most large public projects don't go wrong. We might be better served by examining what has succeeded - and why.

Ireland developed a national road network of more than 5,300km at a cost of around €30bn - in 10 years. We have built ourselves rail services, including the Luas Red and Green lines which took 36 months to construct - costing about €760m for the original 23km.

Cork built its Suburban Rail Project, including a new 10km section of rail line from Glounthaune to Midleton, while in the west, the new Ennis to Athenry route now allows an intercity service from Galway to Limerick.

Ireland also has a record of successfully building large and complex road tunnel projects. The Dublin Port Tunnel, the fourth longest urban motorway tunnel in Europe, was built in 66 months at a total cost of €752m between 2001 and 2006.

The Jack Lynch Tunnel in Cork cost €133m and took about 48 months to build, while the Limerick Tunnel under the Shannon had a construction cost of €660m and took 46 months to build - two months faster than expected.

With transport projects, it can be easy to overlook 'humble' but expensive, ambitious and technically complex achievements such as the replacement of rail signalling systems by Irish Rail or the provision of Real Time Passenger Information for bus passengers. Our major airports have seen large complex projects undertaken between 2007 and 2010 with Cork and Dublin both building new terminals - the latter at a cost of €923m - while Dublin airport's second runway is under construction at an estimated cost of around €320m.

Many people forget that 'overnight successes' like the Wild Atlantic Way, Dublin's Docklands and Temple Bar; Limerick's Arthur's Quay/ Custom House Quay or Galway's Kirwin's Lane/ Spanish Arch/Quay Street were all the outcome of carefully planned developments that were paid for with public money - to create the opportunities and vitality that support commercial activity, quality of life and tourism in these areas today.

This sample of projects illustrates a number of important lessons.

The first is the need to avoid a fear of big numbers. A big number is just big, but so are the benefits. Everyone takes it for granted that the centres of our major cities are not clogged with trucks - nobody now thinks about the costs of the tunnels that made this possible.

The second is to cultivate big ambition. A new motorway system in 10 years? Think of the expense and the risk! But we did it - and these projects will serve us for centuries out into the future. If we have any fault, it's not having enough ambition.

The third is "keep our eyes on the prize", by spending big to win big. Residents and visitors alike enjoy Dublin's Temple Bar and Silicon Docks - indeed each now play vital roles in putting Ireland on the world map for urban tourism and inward investment by trendy social media firms that employ thousands.

The fourth, and last, lesson appears to be that successful delivery of large complex and ambitious projects appears to work best when overseen by a specialist body.

The National Roads Authority built our motorway system, the Rail Procurement Agency built our Luas, while the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and Temple Bar Properties oversaw the transformation of Dublin's most run-down inner city areas.

It's quite remarkable to look back at this sample list to realise how much Ireland has done and built in the last 25 years - a tiny period in the history of a country.

A Dail committee would be much more likely to add to the store of public wisdom by investigating this series of achievements to see why they did not fail.

They should interview the players who made all of this happen. They will have the benefit of hindsight to examine whether a cost overrun or a delay of 12 month really mattered when seen in perspective.

Perhaps, most tellingly of all, the same imaginary Dail Committee should examine, not the time taken for the project to be built, but instead to examine the time losses and cost increases that were caused by the political indecision that endlessly deferred the start of these projects.

Perhaps the answer lies much closer to home. Almost every example cited above resulted in a project that took only three or four years to build. Almost every one of these projects was preceded by a period of about 20 years of political dithering that often included multiple 'feasibility reports.

Perhaps the best way to avoid delays and cost increases of public projects is - as Nike would say - just do it.

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