We Need to Change Our Conversations on Societal Infrastructure - PART II - Institute on Governance

We Need to Change Our Conversations on Societal Infrastructure – PART II

With contribution from IOG Fellow Dr. Sara Filbee. This article is second in a series considering the importance of societal infrastructure

Once we have agreed on what is essential for our collective wellbeing and interests, we need to determine how we will manage and invest in it.

This is a complex discussion as societal infrastructure spans private and public sectors as well as civil society. However, regardless of who is the ‘owner’, we all have a stake in it being accessible, inclusive, resilient and sustainable. Canadians are entitled to expect leaders in all sectors to play their part.

Sadly, on any one of these markers, we have significant work to do.

From a public sector perspective, the determination of how much we should invest has been constrained (at least in the public discourse) by two numbers from the public accounts – debt and deficit.

There is insufficient regular accounting for the health and sufficiency of our societal infrastructure – our collective assets. If we were running a company, we would be considered negligent and incompetent to base our decisions on two numbers from the financial statements. Countries are significantly more complex and such focus is accordingly even more problematic.

Such a narrow focus has led to what I describe as a propensity to define “strategic” by success in cutting costs in the public sector and a failure to invest sufficiently in the health of our infrastructure.


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The consequences are that we currently face an infrastructure gap that, depending on who you listen to, ranges from the billions to a trillion – and this is just the regular bricks and mortar physical assets. Not included are the investments required to meet the challenges of the climate emergency such as recently experienced across Canada nor to address the deficits that the Covid pandemic has exposed and indeed made worse. Much of our social infrastructure and community gathering places are run by small enterprises or civil society, often with limited fiscal capacity and ability to withstand the shock of the pandemic.

All sectors have a role to play and are subject to fiscal pressures which can prevent necessary investment.

Several decades of neoliberal orthodoxy, which prescribed privatization in order to capitalize on the real or perceived efficiencies and effectiveness of the private sector have led to the privatization of a significant proportion of our utilities and other similar essential assets. Here the risk is that in the drive to make publicly run infrastructure saleable in the marketplace, deals may not always have been carefully enough structured to ensure adequate incentives and assurances of the necessary levels of investment and maintenance for the long term, let alone for a future requiring a rethink about how we can sustainably coexist on this planet.

On the digital front, after several decades of short-term focus, governments are hampered by legacy systems and, often, a lack of investment in redundancy for the infrastructure that is in place.

Cyber-attacks increasingly pose a significant danger to the health and safety of citizens. Digital infrastructure is for the most part operated by large private sector (public) companies which are subject to shareholder pressures for short term profit maximization rather than their contribution to the public good or sustainability. Also unaddressed is the highly energy intensive nature of our digital technologies at a time when we are increasingly reminded of the need to reduce our environmental footprint – and quickly.

One small example of the unanticipated consequences of the delivery of essential services by the private sector was demonstrated during Hurricane Dorian in Atlantic Canada in 2019. There, residents struggled with insufficient cellular capacity due to a lack of adequate back-up power for cellular towers.

Today, people either don’t have landlines or if they do have them, they are electrically, or battery powered and thus not available in an extended crisis. Cellular service is thus the only way for individuals to connect and access emergency services in a prolonged loss of power leaving a significant hole in our emergency communications capabilities.

These all pose significant challenges. Having inclusive, resilient, accessible and sustainable societal infrastructure is fundamental to our nation’s social and economic success. A short-term focus which neglects 21st Century realities will not get us there.

We, and this means all of us and all sectors, need to put our shoulder to this wheel if the promise of our Nation is to be realized.

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