The Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop’s fragile business case shows governments need an Evaluator-General

SRL

We have a broken process for evaluating costly government investments. The evolving plan for an underground railway through Melbourne’s middle suburbs reminds us that we need something better.


The Victoria government is currently in the early stages of building what would likely be Australia’s first $100-billion-plus infrastructure project – the Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop. That price tag would make it bigger than the national broadband network, but with the costs borne by just a quarter of Australia’s population.

The Loop is currently wildly popular in Melbourne, as best I can tell. It also seems to be a favorite of , who announced it as a fait accompli before it had much assessment at all.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews loves the Loop. Why? It’s a mystery I’ve explored elsewhere on Troppo. The project seems unlikely – a mostly underground and hence expensive rail line through Melbourne’s middle suburbs, whose spread-out nature minimises their potential capture area and dilutes and rail line’s impact. To most transport experts, this doesn’t seem a very good way to improve Melbourne’s transport grid or foster the development of new urban hubs.

And if it doesn’t pay off, the resulting debt could act as a drag on the state’s economy for years.

So it really does merit someone running the ruler over it fairly dispassionately, to see if it will help or hinder the state. And that evaluation needs to look at all the social benefits as well as all the social costs. Those benefits and costs are many and various, so the only really comprehensive way to do this evaluation is to attach a common value to each of them and then compare. In other words, we need a benefit-cost assessment.

Infrastructure Victoria, sidelined

In theory, Victoria has just the body to do such an assessment: Infrastructure Victoria, created in 2015. Andrews said at the time that it would “take short-term politics out of infrastructure planning, and keep our pipeline of major projects full”. It would ensure “Victoria’s immediate and long-term infrastructure needs are identified and prioritised based on objective, transparent analysis and evidence”. It would “prioritise the projects that deliver the best results”.

Here’s the twist: once announced, the Loop quickly became government policy. And at that point, Infrastructure Victoria could no longer evaluate it.

So instead, the Loop has what the government calls a “business case”, which it has represented as proof that the Loop makes sense. This business case comes from KPMG, working for the government. It appeared in August 2021 (PDF link).

We’d have a lot more reason to trust the business case if it were done under the eye of a more disinterested assessment group. Specialist bodies like Infrastructure Victoria seem too easily sidelined, and sidelining them won’t attract political penalty: Infrastructure Victoria seems just too small to catch the public’s attention. A better alternative might be Nick Gruen’s suggested independent government-wide institution to monitor and evaluate policymaking and service delivery – the Evaluator-General.

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Posted in Economics and public policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Standards Part One: Standards as windows on an alternative universe

I. Introduction 

Some prefer iPhones. Others prefer Android. These are the two standards left standing for what only old guys call smartphones. ‘Standards wars’ like this have arisen throughout history. No doubt readers can provide examples back to the ancient world, but the switch to double entry bookkeeping from 1299 on and from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar from 1582 to 1927 provide us with an early instances of standards warfare. 

Since then the 19th-century gave us standards wars over railway gauges and between AC and DC current, not to mention the fairly rapid rise to sole dominance of simple standards as occurred with the QWERTY keyboard for instance. Things then really hotted up with the growing knowledge intensity of the 20th-century economy. 

Still, even as the 20th-century saw hundreds of standards wars, they were hardly front of mind for most people. That’s particularly so for science and public policy thinkers. Standards played virtually no role in mainstream economics until the 1980s when all those pesky things that got in the way of the discipline’s great quest to understand an imaginary perfect economy were readmitted into polite conversation — things like scale economies, imperfect competition, asymmetric information, cognitive biases and path dependency.  

But I think standards are a much bigger deal than this mild revisionism would have us believe. They provide a way into thinking about the world as if most of our understanding occurs outside our heads. If that strikes you as outrageous, here’s Nathaniel T. Wilcox, a fine behavioural economist and econometrician on the point: 

I suggest that the main genius of the human species lies with its ability to distribute cognition across individuals, and to incrementally accumulate physical and social cognitive artifacts that largely obviate the innate biological limitations of individuals. If this is largely why our economies grow, then we should be much more interested in distributed cognition in human groups, and correspondingly less interested in individual cognition. We should also be much more interested in the cultural accumulation of cognitive artefacts: computational devices and media, social structures and economic institutions.

Standards are a window — though only that — on that parallel universe in which our minds are ‘distributed’. 

II. Standards create worlds 

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Academia: when there’s no ‘there’ there

I

The university is one of the finest creations of European culture. Alas, as a troublesome fellow once said, all that is solid melts into air. I’m a bit shy of attributing things to a single cause. These things tend to built up over many, many decades. But certainly what might be called the moral collapse of universities, the collapse of morale among academics and the triumph of careerism has coincided with the slide into managerialism

I’ve had my complaints about this in academia generally and in economics. However this post is in response to coming across an article which I was very keen to read because it dealt with a subject I think is of great interest and importance. Alas, I was at a loss to discover any real evaluative content in it whatever. Let me explain. 

II

Since I first encountered them, I’ve regarded design — particularly co-design — and peer support as powerful means of escaping bureaucratic business-as-usual. Both are brought together in Family by Family an exciting departure for social policy which has nevertheless been left to safely languish on the periphery of our system for a decade. 

So naturally, doing some work on the efficiency and effectiveness of helping people understand the best assistive technology options available to them, I was interested to learn of the existence of a similar combination of design and peer support with the additional feature of another modern phenomenon of great promise — social media platform (and yes, as we’re coming to see, when it’s harnessed for profit and clicks, social media is also a threat). 

So I was keen to learn about “AT Chat” which describes itself as “a peer-led, co-designed community for assistive technology (AT) users to share information and lived experience about AT”. It’s mission?

… to deliver a peer-led information and mentoring service that provides our community with the opportunity to build their AT decision making capability and share their expertise with each other and the broader community.

I then ​ discovered a recent article in the academic journal “Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology” with this title “Co-creating an assistive technology peer-support community: learnings from AT Chat”. The kinds of questions I’d like to see researchers tackling regarding such ventures include:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of co-design compared with more traditional delivery methods and can we come to any general conclusions? If not, how do we tell good from bad in co-design and in more traditional methods? 
  • Ditto between peer and professional support? In so far as there are differences, are peer and professional support compared on a ‘level playing field’. That is, not only do professionals earn a pay-cheque but they are backed by substantial organisational resources. How much better might peer support be if supported in similar ways? What is the effect of paying mentors on their status as peers. And how much benefit might be generated by building effective education pathways from peer-support to professional standing.
  • What opportunities and threats to effective collaboration arises from the greater social distance between people when they encounter each other online compared with in person. (This is an important reason why sampling methods of democratic deliberation seem to work better in person than online).

Alas that’s not what’s in the article.  Continue reading

Posted in Education, Methodology, Philosophy | 2 Comments

You heard it first on Troppo folks: Up from the archives

Reading the publicity for this new book I remembered a name — pathologist Colin Manock — thinking it had been at the centre of some deliberations here some time ago. I was right — it had.

I reproduce the relevant column from the archives in 1910 for your delectation, though the comments thread also contains much that is of interest. Continue reading

Posted in History, Law | 2 Comments

Needing the eggs: The podcast

Here’s a podcast I did a few weeks ago which has garnered more reaction from people than any I’ve done before. That may just be because (as it turned out) I played cat and mouse with the listener by the podcast talking to an essay I’d written that hadn’t been published. In any event lots of people tune into what Tyson Yunkaporta has to say about things and he’s an interesting and astute guy.

Anyway, I’ve had requests from quite a few different places around the world for the essay — to which, as loyal Troppodillians, you’ll know you are also most welcome to. Anyway, I hope you find it of interest. And if you want to download it onto your pod, you can do so from Tyson’s podcast site here.

 

Posted in Democracy, Economics and public policy, History, Indigenous, Sortition and citizens’ juries | Leave a comment

Practical steps towards Ivan Illich’s world

For anyone who’s interested I recommend David Cayley’s series of CBC radio documentaries on Illich. (He’s the best broadcaster I’ve come across). The first series of five programs focuses on Illich’s social thought and the second thirteen years later on his later, theological thought. They can be found all together on YouTube here and here or podcasted direct to you from Cayley’s website — which has a podcast channel. Cayley has also just published a biography which is available for a ridiculous price — the ebook, which I bought is more reasonable. 

I. Introduction

Owing to quite a bit of recent hoopla about him, I’ve recently been reading Ivan Illich. Like the Molière character who discovers he’s been speaking prose his whole life, I discover I’ve been thinking a little like Illich for some time. While Illich’s diagnosis garnered plenty of attention and adherents at the time, his proposals for change were sufficiently revolutionary that they left little trace on reality. But while Illich’s focus was on radical critique, mine has been on concrete steps one might take to address the problems.

Illich’s critique in his most famous and genre defining book, Deschooling Society, is radical indeed. He thought a great deal of schooling simply pacified students to become economic inputs. And his wider purpose wasn’t just the familiar idea that education should be more in line with the liberal ideal, less like a factory and more experiential and/or ‘problem based’ etc etc etc. He argued that a great deal of it wasn’t really education at all — that it was role playing education. (I know what he means. Japanese was one subject my son did throughout primary school. He learned to count to 20 and not much else.) Paul Graham thinks similarly, though with very different emphases. 

Illich’s intriguing proposal was to disestablish education by analogy with the disestablishment of churches. All very interesting, but, at least from what I’ve read, he wasn’t very specific about how this would work the wonders he claimed for it. And so people could be left with the impression he was against education, or for a lot less of it — which jars somewhat with his own erudition. 

Be that as it may, this essay is just a few thoughts arising from my new dalliance with Illich — like my dalliances with Michael Polanyi and John Macmurray (though at much less length). In the next section I’ll give you a very brief introduction to Illich and then in the final section go on to try to demonstrate my claim. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Education, Ethics, Health, History, Innovation, Philosophy, Political theory, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 5 Comments

Needing The Eggs: 70 Years Of Going Through The Motions

I’ve recently completed an essay and like quite a few of my essays, it’s not been ‘optimised’ for publication in a magazine, so I may not try to publish it. But in case any folks here think it’s of interest, they need only put their email in comments below or email me and I’ll send them access to it on Google docs.

The first of six sections is reproduced below:

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says “Doc, My brother is crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says “I would but I need the eggs”.

Woody Allen, Annie Hall

I. JOKES

Jokes are special purpose vehicles. Like those mirrors on sticks that dentists use, they can illuminate things that are tucked away. In a recent essay I promoted a joke I’d previously used as an embellishment to the centrepiece of my analysis. It was Lord Acton’s joke about rowing being the perfect preparation for public life — enabling you to go in one direction while facing in the other. Writing about policy to promote Indigenous wellbeing, I argued that the system goes from one fad diet to another but won’t face up to the endless ways, large and small in which it says one thing — “we put people first” — but then does another whenever its own interests or routines would otherwise be disrupted.

The difficulty of getting some candid focus on this issue within the bureaucracy — with its obsession with appearances and with keeping its political masters safe — is regrettable but at least understandable. But the problem goes far deeper. Academia seems barely more cognisant of the problem. An analysis of the subtle elisions and evasions within government is difficult to shoehorn into the standard journal article in public policy or management.1 Meanwhile, those seeking to promote solutions in government both from within and without tend to work within parameters set by the system. Whether they’ve articulated the problem of the system’s duplicity to themselves, it a safer bet both for their careers, and also for the good they might do if they take all that as given and seek improvements with ‘bolt on’ initiatives that the system might be persuaded to want (See Section V).

And so to needing the eggs. As Woody Allen explains in the last lines of Annie Hall, relationships are full of things that make no sense, “but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs”. A simplified example of the phenomenon is provided by an actor on stage who mumbles through some lines they’ve forgotten. They don’t fess up to the audience. They keep the show on the road. They need the eggs. So does the audience. It’s slowly been dawning on me how ubiquitous this needing the eggs phenomenon is. And how much keeping up appearances drives dysfunction. The exuberant madness of the joke obscures the ubiquity of its subject — and its profundity. Indeed, as we go about our lives, our brains are keeping their own show on the road. As philosopher Michael Polanyi reported, there’s a blind spot in our field of vision which can obliterate a person’s head 6 feet away from us. Yet so good was our brain at keeping up appearances that it went unnoticed in human history until the twentieth century.

Remaining sections:
II.  Needing the eggs in the academy (wonkish and skippable)
III. It was ever thus
IV. Needing the eggs 70 years on
V. What is to be done I: Your organisation
VI.  What is to be done II: You

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, History, Humour, Indigenous, Isegoria, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 5 Comments