Politicians love big infrastructure projects, from gala announcement — featuring plenty of face time in the media for the politicos themselves — to ground-breaking, also featuring lots of media along with hard hats and “first shovel” action through to grand opening, usually featuring lots of media along with ribbon cutting and some sort of first action involving the newly built bridge/dam/tunnel/streetcar/etc. For some inscrutable reason, politicians are much less eager to get involved in making sure that the glitzy new infrastructure of a few years back gets appropriate and timely maintenance (and the permanent bureaucracy in charge of the now-built infrastructure have rather different long-term goals):
I think the cause lies in a couple areas related to government incentives
- Legislatures never want to appropriate for capital maintenance. If the legislature somehow has, say, $100 million money it can spend on infrastructure, their incentives are to use it to build new things rather than to keep the old things in repair (e.g. to extend a rail line rather than to keep the old one fixed).
- If you want to understand a government agency’s behavior, the best rule of thumb is to assume that they are working to maximize the headcount and the payroll budget of their agency. I know that sounds cynical, but if you do not understand an agency’s position or priorities, try applying this test: What would the agency be doing or supporting if it were trying to maximize its payroll. You will find this explains a lot
To understand #2, you have to understand that the pay and benefits — and perhaps most important of all — the prestige of an agency’s leaders is set by its headcount and budgets. Also, there are many lobbying forces that are always trying to pressure an agency, but no group is more ever-present, more ubiquitous, and more vocal than its own staff. Also, since cutting staff is politically always the hardest thing for legislators to do, shifting more of the agency’s budget to staff costs helps protect the agency against legislative budget cuts. Non-headcount expenses are raw meat for budget cutters, and the first thing to get swept. By the way, this is not unique to public agencies — the same occurs in corporations. But corporations, unlike government agencies, face the discipline of markets that places a check on this tendency.
This means that agencies are loath to pay for the outside resources (contractors and materials) that are needed for capital maintenance projects out of their regular budgets. When given the choice of repairing a bathroom at the cost of keeping a staff person, agencies will always want to choose in favor of keeping the staff. They assume capital maintenance can always be done later via special appropriation, but of course we saw earlier that legislators are equally unlikely to prioritize capital maintenance vs. other alternatives.
The other related problem faced is that this focus on internal staff tends to drive up pay and benefits of the agency workers. This drives up the cost of fundamental day to day tasks (like cleaning bathrooms and mowing) and again helps to starve out longer-horizon maintenance functions.