Our infrastructure story as civic education

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

Our infrastructure story as civic education

This feature article was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of Asset Management BC Newsletter available in full here.

The mission

Whenever we are asked to consider the appropriate or best way to communicate with Council on matters of the public interest, such as our collective challenges with municipal infrastructure, I consider the public messages that will be most helpful and instructive for our “unelected community representatives” in our local democracies – the citizens.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that even in this media and information age, official City Hall professional communications should never be perceived as a substitute for local leadership. Elected representatives, our politicians, have a responsibility to not just determine and govern in the public interest, but to also communicate to citizens, in many cases face-to-face, the reasoning behind their decisions. The role of staff and consultants, then, is to help distill sometimes complex topics (like asset management) and concerns to elected bodies in a way that can be easily relayed to the public.

The second is that the enormous challenges that our local governments are facing – from infrastructure to climate change to social well-being – have been made chronically more difficult to address due to a lack of civic education in fostering informed, active and engaged citizens, which are required for a democracy to function effectively. A global report released this year rated Canada’s democracy at a B-, below most Western European nations and just ahead the United States, primarily due to poor levels of civic engagement.

In this case, the proper stewardship of community assets – whether they be capital, natural, or human – is our overall mission. Why? Because community assets make the provision of civic services possible. And, sustainable service delivery, which requires asset management, provides for the long-term economic, environmental and social well-being of people and communities.

The problem

Fixing systemic and big problems, such as those related to infrastructure, require us to understand the political climate and culture that led us to govern ourselves in a way that threatens the long-term sustainability of local governments and communities. 

A 2019 BBC report titled The Perils of Short-Termism: Civilization’s Greatest Threat, describes our cultural “inability to look beyond the latest news cycle” as “one of the most dangerous traits in our generation.” The report describes this short-termism as manifesting itself in politics by defining the dominant decision-making time frame as “the term in office”.

Given the fact that our infrastructure challenges – whether we call it the infrastructure gap, the infrastructure deficit, deferred maintenance or unfunded infrastructure liability – are all products of this short-termism, the first order of communication is to explain to Council and the public that the chickens have come home to roost on this way of thinking, governing and operating. No more white elephant or vanity projects, no more single issue leaders, no more vending machine democracy.

And, even if we wish to ignore it or find ourselves in political cultures that through complacency, ignorance or arrogance are able to further “buy time” or “kick the can further down the line”, the reality is that legislative requirements and accounting standards are changing.

Gone are the days when we could budget for existing or new infrastructure without considering the life cycle costs – namely operation, maintenance, renewal, disposal and replacement costs. Given the fact that the average cost of new infrastructure is only 20% of the total life cycle costs, it is incredibly reckless and burdensome to future generations to budget or make any decision without such accounting.

At the back of our minds, we all know that there is a price to pay for deferring maintenance. If this is not obvious to Council or members of the public when first outlined, there is often no one better than a representative of civic works to provide an on-the-ground, lived out experience, of what the consequences are of insufficiently funding infrastructure maintenance over time.

If that is not enough, we can always point to Italy’s numerous catastrophic and deadly bridge and overpass collapses in the past decade, which came after maintenance budgets were slashed by as much as two thirds as the country reeled from the effects of the US subprime mortgage crisis. This is also a good time to remember we are not immune to future global economic crises. Asset management is about ensuring we can weather future storms – economic or environmental.

While there are variations between municipalities, the reality is that according to the most recent Canadian Infrastructure Report card, all classes of infrastructure will further deteriorate – including water, sewer, roads, bridges, recreation facilities – at the current rates of investment.

We should also be sensitive to the fact that the average citizen has been enormously short-changed by this short-termism in which we have all wittingly or unwittingly participated in. There is no question that the family and household unit is already economically and socially strained in a way it hasn’t been for decades.

Yet, at this very time, to ensure our municipalities are set on a sustainable track, we are going to be asking citizens to support and participate in difficult decision-making processes – such as decisions to reduce, consolidate or eliminate services or raise taxes, sometimes significantly.

On the bright side, this is also an opportunity to communicate better, live wiser, champion long-term stewardship, do things more effectively, be clearer about our priorities, ramp up collective innovation and problem solving as well as engage citizens in a way they have never been asked to engage before.

The solution

All of this requires civic education. Why? Because we live in a democracy.

When Hitler and Stalin forced historically astounding mass infrastructure renewal and expansion to support rapid industrialization, they did it as all totalitarian states operate – through mortal fear and manipulation.

We have the benefit and privilege of living in a democratic nation with democratic local governments. Our municipalities are governed, in times of ease and times of trial, with the consent of the people for the people.

This comes with the responsibility to ensure the public has an honest assessment and understanding of the challenges we face and a meaningful part in moving forward and thriving together towards our sustainable future.