Governance: the vital fourth component of successful transport planning and delivery

Early on in my career, an officer from a major UK local authority remarked that securing approval for any transport – or other infrastructure – project requires three basic elements. To succeed, the proposal in question needs a strong technical basis, it must have objective-based support of key decision makers, and it is essential to secure credible funding and financing mechanisms, including where appropriate from the private sector. Unless all three elements are present, and aligned, then securing delivery will be next to impossible, however laudable the aspiration.

Twenty years later, and post global financial crisis, this advice seems to me to remain just as valid,  whether the proposition in question is London’s Crossrail, constructing new toll expressways in Vietnam, or meeting ambitious targets for take-up of Electric Vehicles in Dubai. In my experience, however, there is a fourth element that is often overlooked, one which both cements the first three elements together, but also supports the path of a project from the drawing board to successful implementation and operation on the ground. I call this element governance.

Good governance, in a nutshell, covers leadership, management, policies, processes and rights and responsibilities of all individuals or organisations involved in all key decisions for a plan of action. It also includes oversight and accountability to ensure the quality and integrity of those decisions, and those making them, and is inexorably linked to questions of capacity, itself encompassing the skills, instincts, abilities, and resources that individuals and organisations need if they are to successfully progress their mandates in response to changing circumstances.

This is not merely an academic point. The focus on effective governance arrangements is vital for the tangible success of any transport project or programme. Cities such as London, Copenhagen or Singapore are often highlighted as examples of good practice because they have developed strong institutions, processes and systems to plan, construct and operate complex integrated and sustainable multi-modal transport networks. In the same vein, institutional weaknesses have been documented as the source of observed failures in many places, either in terms of non-delivery of any proposed intervention at all, or delivery of the wrong intervention in the wrong location to achieve the desired impacts.

Consider several real-life cases I have seen where an undesirable result, user experience or outcome is linked to a failure of governance:

  • a new metro station marooned in the middle of nowhere without associated property development around it, and adequate pedestrian or feeder connections to create a viable catchment;
  • a bridge which has a weight limit imposed on heavy vehicles due to lack of preventative maintenance and inadequate budgets for asset management, resulting in extensive re-routing and additional journey times for freight;
  • the need for commuters to purchase multiple tickets and pay separately for different bus services to get to work, costing them time and money and reducing household income; or
  • electric vehicle charging networks which exceed the capacity of power grids to supply reliable electricity, risking blackouts as EV numbers increase in line with Government campaigns.

There is no single governance blueprint for successful transport outcomes which may address the scenarios above. Local context matters to a far greater extent than the benchmarking experts would have us believe. Nevertheless, there is enough experience of the issues arising from the failure to align policies and resources, or achieve practical leadership, collaboration, skills or capacity, within or between different organisations or sub-sectors, to establish some general principles. These include:  

  • focusing transport planning and delivery on the achievement of policy objectives and high-level outcomes rather than individual projects or programmes;
  • managing the transport system thematically as an integrated whole across different sub-sectors, modes, and networks, as well as aligning land use, transport and mobility;
  • sharing or aligning policy, strategy and operational objectives across different organisations, and to taking a modally-agnostic approach to appraisal and development of solutions;
  • providing clarity on roles and responsibilities within and between organisations, with adequate support in terms of skills and capacity, systems and processes, and with a culture which emphasises collaboration, continuous learning and improvement over time;
  • focusing strategic leadership, alongside proportionate mechanisms for scrutiny and ensuring the integrity of objective decision making, especially on funding, financing and value capture; and
  • ensuring that transport planning and delivery reflects the extent of public sector finance and other resources available, considers appropriate participation of the private sector, and makes investment decisions based on clear value for money criteria.

In my experience, governance issues are often poorly handled within project planning cycles or are added only as an after-thought. Sometimes they may also be elevated upwards, and essentially abdicated, to “higher authorities” with decisions made based on political calculations rather than objective due process. Time and time again, this leads to proposals remaining on the shelf, becoming distorted in execution, or failing to achieve the original aspirations and desired impacts. 

Encouragingly, governance is moving up the agenda for many in the public sector and is being promoted by international financial institutions such as the World Bank, or through government agencies themselves. For example, Atkins Acuity was recently asked to formulate restructuring proposals for a transit agency in a large African city to evolve its role from a focus on planning and commissioning infrastructure to contracting, management and monitoring of a public bus service. In another instance, we worked with a national economic planning unit in South East Asia on the enablers to successfully formulate a multi-modal transport master plan and integrate the planning approaches, data processing and reporting lines of a myriad of fragmented public and private sector authorities, agencies and companies at national and sub-national level. The mission in both instances was not to focus on “technical” issues of transport and infrastructure planning, but to examine and challenge the way key decisions were made and implemented, by whom, and ensure improvements to process in the interests of transparency, integrity and effectiveness.

Yet, there are still too few studies like these. Many organisations seem content to confine project planning to narrow technical considerations and leave governance questions to politicians or generic senior managers. However, governance of process and structure is the vital fourth pillar in ensuring effective definition, implementation and management of transport investment. It is high time this was given due recognition and fed back into building effective and informed decision making. This will have major benefits for policy makers, public agencies, private investors, supply chain and communities.

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