Why is the government so bad at implementing infrastructure? 

By Alan Fuchs MPL, DA Gauteng Shadow MEC for Infrastructure Development 

A string of failed infrastructure projects across the country and in Gauteng have given rise to a huge backlog of infrastructure. This impacts negatively on the economy and kills any hope that citizens have of a better future. In a meeting with development financiers President Ramaphosa said that in recent years, the government has witnessed the accelerated deterioration of some of its most important assets required to improve the quality of life of citizens. 

At last year’s Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium, he said that the infrastructure backlog was so immense that it would take billions of rands and decades to fill the gap without the contribution of the private sector. During this year’s State of the Province Address (SOPA), Premier Makhura finally admitted that the poor performance of the Infrastructure Development Department in Gauteng has had a negative impact on service delivery and job creation.  

 So why is the government so bad at implementing and maintaining infrastructure?  

It should come as no surprise that one of the major contributing factors is the lack of skills and expertise in the public sector. The haemorrhaging of technical engineering and financial skills has contributed significantly to the bleak state of public infrastructure. The situation is exacerbated by ideological considerations such as BEE, employment equity and cadre deployment, which do not necessarily result in the appointment of the most skilled applicants for a position or contractors for a tender.

Any skilled professional worth their salt is naturally attracted to the private sector as working in government is associated with chaos, lack of discipline, wastage, and inefficiency. The loss of necessary skills has undermined all aspects of infrastructure implementation from planning and design to project management, asset management and maintenance. 

Then, of course, there is the vexing question of corruption. It takes many forms including fraud, or more subtle forms such as rent-seeking, abuse of power or patronage. Procurement systems enable the appointment of ‘connected’ middlemen who inflate the costs and provide kickbacks to officials and political parties.  The wilful subversion of government decision making processes gives rise to the extraction of billions of rands which land in the pockets of the manipulators. 

The emergence of so-called “business forums”, which demand participation in projects and resort to violence and project stoppages if they do not get their way, is becoming more prevalent. 

If not thwarted by robust policing and an agile criminal justice system, the dream of infrastructure development that supports the economy and job creation is pie in the sky. This criminal activity exacerbates the inability of the public sector to spend the available budgets allocated to projects.  

One cannot underestimate the impact of bureaucratic red tape and regulatory framework inefficiency on the ability of the state to implement and manage infrastructure.

The regulatory framework needs to be re-engineered because more than sixty per cent of any development process is currently spent on obtaining statutory approvals, twice as long as it takes for construction. The cost of these delays is borne by the taxpayer.

In addition, not only do public sector developments have to adhere to the same statutory approvals that private sector projects do, but public projects are further impacted by extremely slow and complicated procurement processes, decision-making and inter-governmental regulations, which results in regular under-expenditure of budgets.

A very important aspect that prevents efficient infrastructure implementation, but which is not visible to those outside of government, is the question of governance in terms of how and where decisions are made that affect infrastructure implementation.  

The institutional governance model in Gauteng has several weaknesses.  

There are numerous participants in the creation of infrastructure including the different levels of government, SOEs, government agencies and the private sector.

It is essential that their activities are coordinated by a single vision that ensures the strategic objectives of growth and spatial coherence. That is currently not the case because of a lack of coordination.  

In the case of Gauteng, this vision exists as the Gauteng Provincial Government Spatial Development Framework 2030 (GSDF 2030). This document gathers dust inside the cupboards of officials and politicians and in addition, has weaknesses such as a distinct lack of linkage between policy and implementation. Within the Gauteng government, there are several departments that implement social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals and economic infrastructure, such as roads. The scarce skills that exist are thinly spread across these departments and are diluted to the extent that the quality of output is poor.

It would make much more sense if the scarce skills in terms of planning, design, financial management as well as data analytics were centralised. The individual departments that currently implement would then be stripped of responsibility for planning and design and only be responsible for implementing the plans developed by the centralised, strategic, multi-disciplinary infrastructure entity.  Every one of the impediments mentioned above has a solution but requires skill, experience and commitment to fix them. There is doubt that the current government has the wherewithal to do so, hence the promise of an infrastructure-led economic recovery will remain a distant dream until this government is removed.