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A soft rant about infrastructure

April 5, 2016
Neil Milton

A-RantAll infrastructure is not concrete. In fact, much of the most important infrastructure today is soft – software in fact. If infrastructure is the stuff that makes society work, it is increasingly about data.

Unfortunately, this soft stuff is much harder to do than pouring concrete. And less politically sexy too. But that does not mean it is not more important.

Governments spend approximately 30% of GDP in Canada. If we want to make Canada richer and more productive we need start demanding that our governments do what they do ‘better, faster and cheaper’. For instance, our governments are way behind the curve on adopting technology. A huge part of the reason is that adopting technology is hard: if you want good IT you need good management. Sadly, our weak government IT probably speaks volumes about the quality of management in our governments.

Remember the long gun registry? There was nothing wrong at all with the principle. If we register cars, surely we can and should register guns. However, the implementation of the project was egregiously bad. It was grossly behind schedule and vastly over budget when finally cancelled (this failing must be laid squarely at the feet of the management and their political masters, at the time, the Chretien-Martin liberals). Good management prevents function creep. Good management gets IT projects finished on time and on budget, and weak management does not. Quite frankly, I cannot think of a more shameful non-tribute to the memories of the victims of the Lepine rampage at UdM than the failure of the government to build and implement a proper long gun registry.

Probate registries are a great example of soft infrastructure that cries out for improvement. It may seem like ‘You die, and someone else files a few forms and pays some taxes’, but the truth is that probate performs an extremely important public role – probate is the gateway through which all succession of assets must pass. Without probate, there is no orderly transfer of wealth after death. Without probate, there is chaos. The government, as sole arbiter of ‘who gets to handle the estate’ provides a classic public good, as it attempts to decrease anarchy and increase justice, to counter the greed, venality, confusion and paranoia that would otherwise rule the day (and which are still a big part of the way many families handle death).

Probate is a public good. A good probate system is like a good sewage system: everyone needs it, everyone benefits from it, and it needs to work. If it does not work, a lot of nasty stuff will spread very quickly. A weak, inefficient probate system, like we have in Ontario, wastes government resources and imposes massive transaction costs. A better probate system one would make the province better – fairer, and richer.

We need to stop thinking that all infrastructure is concrete. Only simpletons think ‘subways, subways, subways’ covers what our governments should do to improve infrastructure. Good government gets important stuff done, whether citizens demand them or not, to make things better (like vaccinations!). It may not be as sexy as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, but if we really want our governments to focus on the infrastructure that matters, ‘peace, order and good data management’ is not a bad place to start.

Neil