Why we must look beyond ‘On Time’, ‘On Budget’

For years, infrastructure project leaders have stood in public and declared with glee that their project remains ‘on time’ and ‘on budget’. Only for issues to later unravel that leaves everyone feeling bemused and resentful.

The fixation of our industry with these inelastic measures seems to detract somewhat from a key point – the very reason we’re doing the project in the first place. Because the point of any project can never be the thing that is being built, but the problem it is trying to solve and the benefits it is aiming to deliver.

The global infrastructure industry is under growing pressure. Record investment has been accompanied by ever increasing societal expectations, growing sustainability demands and huge competition for skills, which are combining to make life challenging and unpredictable.

Globally, only 2 out of 10 large infrastructure projects are on budget – at best.  Only 2 out of 10 are on time – at best. That is according to the latest research by the University of Cambridge. These two phrases have been the hallmark against which project performance is measured. They are simple and easy for everyone to understand. Yet we do ourselves a great disservice by continuing to use such narrow measures to define our success.

By setting such expectations in the eyes of the public, we can only fail. Because ‘success’ will only be the achievement of what was already promised. We know a lot of negative perception comes from the sometimes large gulf between promised and end cost. What’s more, this language has the effect of dramatically over-simplifying the nature, and underplaying the value, of what we do.

We know that infrastructure projects are incredibly complex, intricate and risky.  They are an ecosystem of interdependencies, juggling thousands of variables and balancing the needs of a myriad of stakeholders. Rigidly judging them alone on cost and schedule, often set by over-exuberant politicians in the years before they are fully understood, is unfair and unhelpful.

More importantly, this language fails to talk about the catalytic, transformative benefits we deliver. Public understanding of project benefits is often sketchy – they hear a mix of messages in a language they can’t understand.  Industry figures have struggled to articulate project benefits and ‘value’ in a way which is relevant, inclusive, tangible and meaningful.

The way we serve communities, or the new choices we create for people in work and life, should be at the heart of our narrative. Our success should be measured not in binary form, but in the long-term value we provide. Yes, good oversight and control is needed to ensure projects remain needs-led, affordable and deliverable. But during delivery we should pay careful attention to ensure that any re-calibrating of cost or schedule does not erode the benefits. Given the operational lifespan of infrastructure dwarfs that of its construction, we cannot lose sight of the long game.

To achieve this shift, we must clearly define, measure and continually assess project benefits, ensuring any design or construction changes take account of the impact to achieving them. Any commitments made around cost or opening dates should be nuanced, given as an indication or a range, rather than drop-dead figures and dates. Once a project is complete, it is crucial to evaluate whether it is actually providing the value promised – the whole point of doing it. As an industry we don’t do this well enough, but it is crucial if we are to build greater understanding and trust with the public.

Infrastructure is expensive; it takes time. We cannot deliver it in isolation – we have to bring people with us. Let’s move beyond focusing on project time and cost and instead spend much more time outlining the short and long-term worth of what we do.