Accountants and infrastructure: holding up the bridge!

Here’s a cherished memory from earlier this year:

  • Democratic congressional leaders emerged from a meeting at the White House on Tuesday and announced that President Trump had agreed to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to upgrade the nation’s highways, railroads, bridges and broadband.
  • Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said that there had been “good will” in the meeting and that it was “different than some of the other meetings that we’ve had.” Standing alongside Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he said the group planned to meet again in three weeks, when Mr. Trump was expected to tell them how he planned to actually pay for the ambitious project.

And since then it’s been clear sailing! Oh no, wait

  • Donald Trump on Wednesday terminated a meeting with Democratic leaders after just a few minutes, saying he refuses to work with them on an infrastructure plan unless they stop investigating him and lift the threat of impeachment.
  • Democrats quickly fired back, claiming that the US president had planned the stunt in advance and what happened at the White House would “make your jaw drop”.

And that for now, is that. Could things have been different? Well, obviously, many of us like to dream of the virtues of a Trump-free world. But a recent report provides another angle – maybe they should have had an accountant in the room?

  • …the successful provision of public infrastructure requires governments to have the right professional team in place to be able to harness the benefits of additional investment, while working to mitigate the significant risks associated with infrastructure projects. The accountant must be brought to the centre of the decision-making process on the selection, financing, building and operation of infrastructure, where the finance professional’s particular skills and perspective can mean the difference between success and failure.

This comes from How accountants can bridge the global infrastructure gap: Improving outcomes across the entire project life cycle, published jointly by CPA Canada and the UK’s Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). It fleshes out that summary in considerable detail, and it would be very interesting if it had some impact in closing the identified “gap.” A major problem, of course, is that public infrastructure decisions are generally contaminated by politics to an extent that dwarfs the stabilizing influence of even the most persuasive accountants: in Toronto, where I’m based, the astonishingly wretched saga of our mass transit systems provides an ever-present example. Like much else, the winning infrastructure project will often be the one that grabs the best narrative, however tangential it may be to society’s core needs and problems. The report duly notes that, based on an underlying survey, “‘removing political decision-making and making the process more technocratic’ was the change most cited by finance professionals as likely to improve the planning and selection process.” Accountants might be capable of influencing this, for instance:

  • Alongside the technical methods available for isolating need and priority, accountants can produce a broader range of metrics to improve the projection selection process. For example, project planning and selection in Japan considers the effect of infrastructure investment on achieving regional equity, instead of selecting projects that give the highest direct economic return (International Transport Forum 2017). This approach prioritises more evenly spread economic development in a country, even where an optimisation model would suggest investment elsewhere.

The areas of project financing and funding may seem particularly susceptible to constructive input from accountants. The report makes it clear that public infrastructure will often draw on private financing for various reasons, for example:

  • Governments will be encouraged to use private finance, even when it ultimately costs more than traditional public finance, when this generates the fiscal illusion of adhering to fiscal rules while at the same time building and operating necessary infrastructure. In addition to the fiscal illusion, these treatments limit the transparency of infrastructure finance by shielding some politicians and the public from understanding the true cost of infrastructure investment in a particular country.

The report concludes: “Two key benefits can justify the use of private finance for public infrastructure: the appropriate transfer of risk from the public to the private sector in the building and running of the infrastructure; and efficiencies achieved through the use of private sector money in the financing, building and operation of public infrastructure.” But what follows is lacklustre: “Accountants in the public sector must play a critical role in managing both these benefits, while also collecting reliable data to measure whether private finance provides good value for money.” As I wrote here recently in the context of recent thinking on the purpose of a corporation, it increasingly seems to me that the ability to extract a financial return from a project is an inherent indication of an ultimately negative impact for society. I doubt the profession is yet at a point where it can entirely resist the tired orthodoxies though. For example, another section of the CPA Canada website, in the context of arguing for a comprehensive review of Canada’s tax system, trots out the likes of “Canada has lost its corporate tax advantage as the U.S. and other advanced economies have reduced corporate taxes and improved their own tax competitiveness,” and “top personal income tax rates and thresholds in Canada are uncompetitive,” with no hint that the measure of competitiveness (a term which, including its variants, turns up 36 times in 34 pages) is other than a financial one.

But as the infrastructure report notes: “The ultimate objective in fulfilling a country’s infrastructure need is not a notional investment figure; rather, it is closing a recognized service gap. Doing this requires that governments develop a vision of what the country seeks to achieve through the development and maintenance of its infrastructure.” For many poorer countries (the report mentions Nigeria and Pakistan among others) the core elements of that “vision,” surely, would often be as basic as “keeping people alive,” an imperative which, to say the least, will often transcend prevailing concepts of competitiveness and value for money…

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

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