Continuing my series on institutional issues concerning infrastructure costs and quality, after the issue of procurement, I’d like to discuss the issue of the quality of public-sector oversight. It is critical to have extensive in-house expertise inside an apolitical civil service empowered to make technical decisions. The role of the political layer is to set up broad rules, not to micromanage. Conversely, while the top people should avoid micromanagement, they should be expert enough to be capable of making specific decisions.
Civil service and oversight
The importance of civil service to oversight is that it’s the professional layer that has to supervise planners, engineers, architects, and construction teams. There are too many small decisions for a single elected political layer, say a minister and a policy team the minister directly appoints and supervises.
In my procurement post, I was basing my recommendations on common threads I’d seen or read about in low- and medium-cost European countries, and to some extent practice in South Korea, a low-cost country on a par with Southern Europe. All of these make use of professional civil servants to make any of the following decisions:
- In-house planning. The macro-level decisions on funding levels are political (and never devolved to the agency through dedicated slush funds, unlike for US highways), but the decisions at the level just below, such as what programs to ask the politicians to fund, are made by professional agencies. High-speed rail was invented this way in Japan and then reinvented in France, while upgraded legacy rail was so invented in Germany and perfected in Switzerland.
- Design and engineering. Those can be done in-house or outsourced to consultants, or more likely some mixture of the two, but even if the design is contracted out, it’s the agency that owns the product and is responsible for it.
- Contractor selection. It is irresponsible to award a megaproject design contract based on the lowest bid. A technical score is used nearly universally in the low- and medium-cost examples we have looked at, and this means someone needs to come up with sound criteria for scoring and then evaluate each proposal. This has to be done more intelligently than just by rubric. A British source told us of a problem with British technical scoring: every large project is parceled out between different consultants, and thus all consultants can claim experience on the same project, making it impossible at that level to tell which companies do better work than others, even as industry insiders know who does bad work. The same source, when I asked about French comparisons, said that France has extensive in-house expertise and therefore doesn’t hire their consultancy.
- Contract supervision. Change orders are inevitable, especially for underground projects. Not coincidentally, in Eno’s database the American premium for subways is higher than for at-grade light rail, which is technically more predictable. It’s on the client agency to decide whether to accept or reject changes coming from unpredictable factors, and this requires extensive knowledge of the field.
In my procurement post, I spoke of flexibility. No client can have flexibility without oversight – flexibility without oversight is an anything-goes game in which the contractor abuses the client, the client abuses the contractor, or, most likely, both. And this oversight is necessarily detailed enough that it requires civil service.
An example from Sweden
I spoke to an experienced Swedish project manager earlier this year. The project manager talked to me about the major issues with the construction of Citybanan, the regional rail tunnel Stockholm opened 4 years ago, shortly after I left the country. This included issues of construction techniques (but for further engineering question my source referred me to an engineer) but also competition policy, negotiation, change orders, etc.
At one point in the interview, I asked about something a previous Swedish source told me about, called functional procurement. In functional procurement, the agency maximizes flexibility by specifying only the function of the project, such as the required capacity and schedule, and letting the contractors make suggestions as to how to fulfill it; this is similar to the military concept of mission command, stressing flexibility and training intermediate officers in how to use it in a hierarchical organization.
The project manager said of this growing trend in Swedish procurement: “I can’t say it makes it easier.” The manager then explained the constraints involved – railways have technical specs that make a functional contract not too different from a conventional one, where the design is already figured out and the contractors have to build to it with only minor modifications.
Let’s unpack what happened in that interview. A Swedish manager who does not know me, who I have never met, first of all talked to me in technically adept language, and second of all was willing to go on the record criticizing a trend in infrastructure construction procurement, a trend that the person who put us in contact had mentioned to me as a positive.
I have never heard this kind of internal criticism from American sources, unless they knew me well enough and were trying to get me to publish their internal problems in the media. And quite often, the criticism I would hear from the US was much more pungent, complaining about politics or a bad manager. “We have been trying this trend but I don’t think it’s working,” in exactly the tone you can imagine emerge from the style of quotation, is not a line I recall hearing from an American. The civil servants who criticize something are far more frantic, far more afraid. Sweden will trust its civil servants to literal death. The US (and UK) will not trust them to do anything but follow orders.
Is Sweden unique?
No. Strong traditions of professional civil service exist everywhere we’ve looked outside the US. Even the UK has a semblance of it; the problem there is that the topmost layer of civil servants – the Sir Humphreys – consists of lifelong generalist elites rather than domain experts.
In Italy, the situation is especially lopsided. The political layer of the government is weak because party control changes so often and ministers do not last, and there are so few political appointments that even with political instability, the civil service lasts across those changes. If anything, the instability makes the professional layer stronger.
It’s critical to ensure the civil service is not political. This doesn’t just mean that it should not be partisan. There are enough dominant-party jurisdictions in which it’s understood that the civil service exists to implement a predictable political agenda, which can be left-wing (Berlin, New York, California) or right-wing (Bavaria, Texas). Those jurisdictions all have problems coming from the lack of meaningful political competition, but those problems come from politicians, not civil servants. No: political noninterference goes much deeper, and means sidelining issues of petty personal priorities.
The ideal civil service has as few political appointees as possible. Those are neither elected nor meritorious. By their nature, they lack the legitimacy of both the politicians above them and the deep layer of domain experts below them. If they’re selected from among people with industry and operating experience then this is fine – technically senior generals are political appointments in both the US and Israel subject to the usual military norms, and Andy Byford was an external hire for New York City Transit with experience in the industry but not the agency. But letting generalist managers selected for political loyalty parachute in charge of agencies is a recipe for disaster.
The word for people who are always to be managed by people who are not from within their own social group is servants. Such people, knowing that their manager will always be someone who has other priorities that are not always transparent to them, will learn to lower their heads rather than proactively looking for ways to improve their institution.
A scientist working at a federal institution explained it to me this way: “There’s absolutely ways to speed things up, but they need cover from the political appointees at the top. A career officer understands their role to be following an existing plan, laid down in writing by either congress or by a planning process involving the top (i.e. political appointee) officers of the agency.”
This was meant to explain the sluggish FDA corona vaccine approval process, but can equally apply to infrastructure and operations of public transportation. Any variation from a plan written long ago by people who were often not even at the frontier of knowledge then requires political approval.
Trusting the civil service
A low-trust society isn’t one in which common people don’t trust the elites. It’s one in which the elites don’t trust the common people. In the context of civil service, it’s crucial to set up a system in which the top people affirm rather than scourge those below them.
Byford did it well, setting up a system encouraging employees to complain and suggest improvements, much to the surprise of managers at other MTA agencies who preferred scourging their subordinates. At the topmost level, it means the political layer needs to affirm the authority and expertise of the civil servants; in conflict between a petty actor such as a community advocate and the junior members of the state, the state must support its own, while internally ensuring that the proposal has technical merit. (Political merit is judged by elections, not by who screams the most loudly at midday community meetings.)
Civil servants who see that their superiors are hired and promoted from within the ranks or among peers, and judged for their ability to work with those below them and not just those above them (in the tech industry, a managerial hire spends some interview time with the team they are to supervise), will soon learn that they can show initiative. The ones with bad intuition will fail, whereas the ones whose initiative is more successful will be able to rise and transmit their ideas to the group. It goes without saying that this also requires staffing up to normal levels and paying competitive wages. This way, the state can ensure it can oversee its own projects competently; there is no alternative.