Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 29: Future of Infrastructure: Focusing on Long-Term Outcomes

Episode 29 guest speaker, Philip Helberg

Future of Infrastructure: Focusing on Outcomes

with Philip Helberg

CEO of Infrastructure Western Australia Philip Helberg joined Jeremy Goldberg for a discussion on long-term planning for infrastructure and, just as importantly, how to know if your plan is working.

Episode 29: Future of Infrastructure: Focusing on Long-Term Outcomes

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

CEO of Infrastructure Western Australia Philip Helberg joined Jeremy Goldberg for a discussion on long-term planning for infrastructure and, just as importantly, how to know if your plan is working.

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Planning for the long term means thinking big and focusing on outcomes

CEO of Infrastructure Western Australia Philip Helberg joined Jeremy Goldberg for our latest discussion on the Future of Infrastructure. Infrastructure has to serve people in the long term and this discussion is all about how to effectively make long term plans for infrastructure investment, and just as importantly, how to know if your plan is working.

Farming for inspiration

Philip Helberg was raised in South Africa during a turbulent political transition and saw early on what not having access to infrastructure meant for people, both in an economic and a social sense.

“I grew up on a farm, a farm does not work without infrastructure. So at an early stage, I was out there building dams, fixing pipes, and it really led to, I guess, my choice of studying civil engineering, which I did, and I graduated and spent most of my time working either as consulting engineer, or as a contractor, back then, in Africa. And towards the latter part of my career, being involved in toll roads, traveling the world, seeing the world I really had a burning desire to spread my wings, I guess and live and experience other parts of the world.”

25 years of experience

“As a graduate civil engineer, you have a choice to either work for a consulting engineer or a contractor or for a client organization. and it was a desire of mine to always spend a bit of time on all sides of the fence, so to speak, to understand people’s perspectives from all directions.”

Helberg moved to Australia in 2005 and worked in consulting before finding an opportunity to join the public sector, leading a building asset investment program. When asked if there was a moment in his life that made him realize he wanted to work on infrastructure, he shared this memory:

“When I look back now, as a child, driving down to Cape Town in South Africa on holiday, I remember seeing a piece of infrastructure that was partially built. So this was an elevated freeway that literally stopped midair and I remember driving past that piece of infrastructure, thinking how on earth did this happen? Because this freeway or bridge was built back in the ‘70s and if you go to Cape Town today, you will still see that piece of infrastructure.”

He continued, “And I asked myself, how did that actually happen? And I’ve heard many stories, but the reality is, that is where politics interfered with good infrastructure planning and I guess I found it quite fitting now, being in the role that I mean, thinking back that, when I saw that piece of infrastructure half built, clearly a white elephant, I just had this – this desire to understand how could that occur? How could public funds or money be spent on infrastructure that serves no purpose at all?”

Looking for more white elephants

“Investment decisions are often made with political objectives in mind and by nature, those objectives tend to be relatively short term. So that’s why we see these white elephants all over the world. And they may not always be as in your face as the example that I gave you in Cape Town. But if you look close enough, you’ll – you’ll see many examples where infrastructure really isn’t delivering on – on its intended purpose.”

The term white elephant is used to describe an unfinished infrastructure project and they can serve as inspiration for what not to do or for how to get things done right in the future.

“This is something the Australian governments, across all the states, have recognized now, over the last 10 years or so and they’ve taken steps to address this. And in the case of Western Australia, Infrastructure WA was established back in 2019 and really our purpose is to provide independent impartial advice to the Western Australian Government on all its state infrastructure needs. Our business is to make sure that infrastructure investment and decision making is based on good long-term planning and research, and not on short-term decision making or political gain.”

Infrastructure needs for government

“The strategy that we are developing takes a long-term view and that’s something that we have to do every five years, and it provides a statewide perspective of the infrastructure needs for government over their 20-year period. Given that the government invests billions of dollars in infrastructure each year, much of which will serve us for decades to come, it’s important that this investment is guided by a strategic plan, really with that long-term outlook.”

Economic, social, and environmental objectives are all considered under this strategy which then leads to better infrastructure planning and delivery. Helberg’s team makes those improvement recommendations.

“Recommendations include, you know, a focus on both projects, so physical, built infrastructure, but also what we term non-built initiatives. That’s when we look at things like better planning, policy, better regulation, pricing, how to fund infrastructure, and technology, and how we can better use technology to optimize and to maximize our infrastructure.”

Foundations for a Stronger Tomorrow

The first strategy that Helberg’s team developed was published in draft form in July 2021. It focuses on government agencies taking responsibility for what they’re doing and really thinking deeply about the new infrastructure they’re building.

He shared, “It’s currently being finalized before it’s handed to our premier and that is after a period of public consultation. We named this document Foundations for a Stronger Tomorrow, because it really tries to set – it takes a systems-wide view that addresses all the key fundamentals that we think should be looked at to set us up for the next 20 years.”

“The strategy aims to improve the quality and the consistency of infrastructure planning across the whole public sector to support more informed planning and investment decision making. And our role, once the strategy gets implemented is to monitor and evaluate the outcomes of our recommendations. So are we hitting the mark? Are we actually achieving the benefit? And our role is to report on that on an annual basis, publicly.”

How to reduce redundancy

“We, from the outset, wanted to establish some guiding principles as to how we were going to approach the development of this strategy, which was a first for Western Australia. And one of the first things we established is that we wanted this to be an open, consultative, and engaging approach.”

How did they do that? By publishing a discussion paper and sharing it with everyone, across the state.

“We traveled to each of the 11 regions within our state and we met with people on the ground, indigenous people, people that are really living and breathing each individual region, which are quite diverse across our state and we wanted to make sure we captured all those views and all those thoughts from across the state.”

Helberg wanted this to be an objective, evidence-based exercise that resulted in sound analysis and long-term solutions, not quick fixes. And on top of that, it needed to be both affordable and deliverable.

“It’s no point us coming up with a wish list of infrastructure needs that are clearly not within our means to deliver. So we had to always have deadlines and then it had to be open to change. We know how quickly the world’s moving, how quickly technology is developing. We had to make sure whether we develop a strategy that, looking 20 years ahead, the chances of us getting it 100% right is literally zero. So we had to make sure that we developed a strategy that could pivot, that could really be agile and adapt to that change.”

You have to demonstrate results

Working in government means being able to demonstrate through data that you are actually making the change that you said you would, because taxpayers are the ones paying for it. Helberg starts this process by making sure he can articulate the outcome he’s trying to achieve.

“It’s not so much as just monitoring progress in terms of implementation of a recommendation, but we’re really looking at the outcome. One of the recommendations that we are making around our indigenous population is how do we improve their access to infrastructure and government services? Many of these people live in absolute remote areas of our state. They don’t have access to the internet. They don’t have access, in some cases, to basic services.”

“And so the recommendation really speaks to that particular need on many fronts, building physical infrastructure, providing them with that connectivity so that they can access some of these government services. And really, when it comes to measuring success, or the outcome for us, it relates back to the physical wellbeing, making sure we can actually measure their wellbeing in an economic and a social sense.”

He continued, “That’s one example, but it becomes very specific, depending on which recommendation or which need you’re trying to address. And we’re currently developing a framework where we are going to clearly articulate what the KPIs are for each of the recommendations, how we will measure that, and it’ll be very strongly linked to the actual outcome.”

Lessons learned and a better approach

When asked what he had learned during this process and what advice he would offer other governments, Helberg had this to say:

“I think the one absolute standout lesson for me is the fact that, after having gone through the whole process of developing the strategy, a month or two after that, we realized that there’s certain aspects of our work that’s already outdated. So being able to do the work in a much more dynamic way, and being able to respond to this constant change, is a challenge that I think we’re facing at the moment, but I think it’s also a significant opportunity for us.”

Helberg shared that in conversations with his counterparts in other states of Australia, he found that everyone wanted the same thing: a real-time way to join all of their data sources together so they could respond to change in a more dynamic way.

“How do you keep this strategy alive and current? Because it is such a complex exercise, touching on so many data sources and people’s opinions, the external environment, it needs to be relevant, it needs to be real, and it needs to change constantly. Even though we have a responsibility to update the strategy every five years, in reality, we believe that’s too long. It has to be something that can move with the times on a constant basis. You know, we’re exploring possibilities in terms of a more – a better approach to more dynamic master planning at the moment, and how we can use our data a lot smarter.”

The current defining moment

“Anyone that’s been tuned into the news over the last few months, here in Australia, would have picked up an urgency around addressing climate change and we experienced it, and we still are, in a real sense in the form of natural disasters, events, in terms of floods, and so forth.”

Due to a flood blocking the only railway line between South Australia and Western Australia, Helberg’s area was recently cut off from a crucial supply chain. The effects of that disruption were felt immediately.

“People felt the effects of not having, you know, groceries on supermarket shelves, for instance, or access to basic needs and that became real for people. The effects of climate change and what it means in terms of resilience of being in an infrastructure sense, and how can we make our infrastructure more resilient, and be less dependent on our infrastructure. And I do believe that’s where digital technologies has a big role to play.”

The state’s potential

“We are still struggling in the state, given the vastness and the area that we’re trying to cover, to provide good quality broadband to the communities. So those basic things that I think could help us become a lot better, a lot more resilient as a state, and as a community, I think that’s where the emphasis needs to be over the next few years, and really, what I’ve seen and experienced over the last few months have really made climate change real for a lot of people.”

Helberg has two main recommendations when it comes to dealing with our rapidly changing climate:

“It’s all about reducing emissions, carbon emissions, and it’s about adapting to the effects of climate change. So for us, the focus needs to be in terms of planning. It’s about setting a target, setting interim targets – both in terms of emissions reduction and adaptation, and working towards those plans and interim targets. A lot of the planning is not in place across the sector to – to make sure we hit those targets. and in fact, given our heavy reliance on the resource sector, there has not really been the shift towards addressing climate change that we would like to see or that we have seen in some of the other states.”

But not all hope is lost.

“I think the private sector is really starting to make a huge effort. Shareholders are demanding that effort and we see a renewed debate around renewable energy, for instance, and what the state’s potential is in that space.”

To find out more:

Infrastructure Western Australia

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