Does a Department of Public Works have a place in the 21st century?

Urban geographer and spatial planner Ben Ross looks at whether a department of public works has merit in the 21st century.

Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones was recently quoted (Newsroom, April 2020) that New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) will no longer be just managing contracts.

He also said that NZTA and KiwiRail should be allowed to self-consent projects under $20m.

This has sparked debate on whether a ministry/department of public works (DoW) should return to do these projects in place of the private sector as now.

The argument has merit on the grounds of agility and keeping profits on shore.

However, those merits fall apart on large projects such as:

  • Waterview Tunnel
  • The City Rail Link
  • Nuclear power stations

A public/private consortium would be more efficient.

How can a DoW be agile for small projects under $20m?

A DoW would not need to go out to the private sector for business cases or procurement for those smaller projects.

This would be done in-house, saving time and money while allowing projects to start immediately.

Thus, projects like road rehabilitation, adding bus lanes and/or cycleways, new/improved roundabouts and government accommodation could be done more quickly, efficiently and nimbly due to the workforce on hand.

A DoW for small projects will not affect the ability of the private sector to continue to deliver public projects.

Reason being the Dow will need access to raw supplies, maintainers for their plant and rolling stock, and their workers need to be fed.

An example using South Auckland and a Department of Works depot

Situation: Covid Lockdown has triggered behaviour changes in how we work and travel

Context: Government Ministers are wanting responses to these behavioural changes (which do not trigger reversions to the status quo pre Covid) – in this case Manukau, South Auckland

Caveat: The Department of Works is authorised to self-consent projects <$20m and may override the prevailing Local Authority or Road Controlling Authority. But Public Works Act considerations continue if Private Land is required

Solution:

  1. The Department of Works – South Auckland Depot uses its in-house Spatial Planner to assess the Situation and Context (including goals of the Government) and produces a High-Level Spatial Plan to the Department
  2. The Plan is approved, and the Department brings in its in-house Designers, Consenting Specialists, Engineers and invites the Independent Maori Statutory Board and The Southern Initiative to all produce the Implementation Plan. If consultation is required then it is done, if the Public Works Act is triggered then that must be settled first
  3. The physical works gets under way by the Depot’s construction workforce
  4. Once the work is done the Spatial Planner alongside the IMSB and TSI do a Post Implementation Review on effectiveness of the program. Any lessons learnt are noted down for the next project

The list of projects the South Auckland Department of Works Depot and its inhouse team would be doing in Manukau as response to the Government Post Covid response:

  • Cycle Lane separation on key arterial roads
  • Working with Auckland Transport to lay down the permanent bus lanes for Airport to Botany Rapid Transit Stages 1 and 2
  • Creation of Transit and Pedestrian Malls in Manukau City Centre
  • Full Upgrade of Hayman Park (that project is over $20m but most planning work was done pre Covid)
  • Construction of smaller buildings in the large Government Accommodation Program (currently stalled owing to Covid)
  • Tree Planting along Puhinui Stream

Note these are smaller Public Works programs stalled by Covid and are often lost in current regime of Death by Business Case and Private Sector procurement. The DoW allow or show the nation we can have agility and resilience in times of depression and natural disaster as we see with Covid 19. Private Sector still wins through supply of materials and maintenance of DoW Rolling Stock. But projects get done fast!

This is not a return to “Think Big” mind you.

Ben Ross is an urban geographer and spatial planner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© NZ INC.

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