Next Berlin government needs task force on infrastructure

Illustration by Roland Brückner | bitteschoen.tv

Voters vent at the polls, now lawmakers must address “bottlenecks”. An interview with Jobst Fiedler.

Does this election result reflect the problems of the Berlin administration? Is it a lesson for the government – and are politicians capable of meeting this challenge?

Jobst Fiedler: Infrastructure and administrative capacity are closely related. If administrative performance falls below a certain level, it can make a difference in the election. Voters express their growing dissatisfaction at the polls. A loss of over 10 percent for the current governing parties – a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – is quite a statement. It reflects frustration with overburdened municipal offices, planning weaknesses in infrastructure, and a backlog of school renovations, for which funding is available but not yet allocated. Citizens obviously just don’t want to accept this anymore.

In Berlin, everything moves too slowly. One major reason is that budget cuts have led to a lack of personnel in key areas. No preparation was made to ensure the same level of output with fewer people. Bottlenecks were inevitable, and should have been dealt with three or four years earlier. The challenge is now greater because we are dealing with a growing city.

What should we expect from Michael Müller in his next term as mayor?

JF: Michael Müller should put together a “bottlenecks task force” to take care of the critical issues. This should be staffed with internal and external experts: internal experts on administration, business representatives – including start-ups, and selected consultants. The group should be given full transparency so they can identify and analyse the key bottlenecks and make suggestions to resolve them. These proposals should then be sent to the new state Senate and Parliament. Six weeks should be enough: 14 days to investigate the facts, 14 days to discuss them, and 14 days to set priorities. It is important that the group focus on solutions. Take a look at cycle paths, which the Greens will push heavily for if they are coalition partners: citizens will not wait years for planning. Implementing a plan should be monitored every four weeks to ensure that it is moving forward.

Regardless who’s in charge, Berlin’s infrastructure needs help – what are the challenges and projects the next state government will face?

JF: Investment in public infrastructure is certainly the big challenge for the next four years. First, there is a huge backlog of repairs to schools, roads, bridges and public spaces, the legacy of 20 years of austerity and underinvestment in public infrastructure. This backlog is mostly in hundreds of school buildings, where pupils and parents are desperately awaiting needed repairs and refurbishment. Berlin’s boroughs have estimated they will need 2 billion euros to get this done, but the city’s finance department questions this sum.

Berlin also faces the challenges of a fast-growing city. With some 40,000 new residents every year, a trend likely to continue for some time, it needs more housing. Some of this could be built on old unused railway sites or the large area vacated by Tegel airport when it finally closes. In addition, large new quarters on the outskirts of Berlin will have to be developed with schools, preschool facilities and traffic infrastructure. Traffic will increase and so will congestion and pollution. This means extending the public transportation network to get cars off the roads, and facilitating bicycle use through a comprehensive network of bike avenues like in Copenhagen. This has been proposed by advocacy groups who want a referendum. The Berlin airport (BER) and the old airport in Schönefeld will soon have twice as many passengers than planned for a decade ago. Without the extension of more efficient public transportation facilities, daily traffic jams will undermine the attractiveness of BER right from its belated start on

The government has already identified many problems that need fixing, but there has been little action. What kind of pressure is needed to implement plans more efficiently?

JF: In 2014, the Berlin Senate already dedicated many more resources to financing the repair and building of new public infrastructure. Using positive developments in the city’s revenues, which created large budget surpluses since 2014, the Senate has set up a multiannual programme for investing in public infrastructure. A large portion of the expected surpluses will be dedicated to a fund called SIWA, tasked with financing the backlog of repairs and enlarging the growing city’s infrastructure. This is an important step, which the Senate has also consistently reinforced by allocating a couple of hundred million euros to the fund every year since. Hopefully the good economic and financial situation will continue for some time so this investment fund can continue to grow. The next city government will have to follow up on this.

Citizens, however, are not feeling the results so far because the available funds have not yet gone to many projects at the top of the priority list. These repairs and new building projects must go through planning and tendering processes and obtain final building permits. It is now evident that administrative capacity at the central and local administrative level is a bottleneck. Here, also, Berlin is paying the price for years of austerity, with hiring freezes and job cuts, especially at the local administrative level. The government has now acknowledged this challenge of an aging and understaffed administration precisely in the fields needed most. New positions are being created and hiring has begun. Although the money is there, it will take time to recruit and train the new and young hires

How will the BER experience inform future infrastructure decisions and planning?

JF: The very negative BER experience, which is not resolved yet, offers many lessons for the governance and project delivery of large public infrastructure buildings. In recently published Hertie School research, we analysed BER and several other large public projects and proposed solutions.

The deficiencies of governance and project delivery in the case of BER are manifold – in the end resulting in a vicious circle of subsequent mistakes. Costs will be billions higher than planned and will result in opening the airport six years after its first postponement in 2012. Oversight bodies without specific expertise, over-optimism and insufficient risk analysis were the crucial deficiencies right from the start.

But there is knowledge to be gained from projects in which budgets and time were heavily overdrawn. This will help improve the planning and execution of public infrastructure buildings in Berlin during the next four years. The city administration and the finance senator have already started to do so. They are determined to improve risk analysis and project management.  But even here, legacies of the past are hard to shake. Over-optimism, costly extra demands and insufficient risk analysis up front will result in a doubling of costs for refurbishing the Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper Unter den Linden) from 200 million to most likely 400 million euros. Signature buildings like this or BER are especially demanding in their technical complexity and size, and it will be some time before Berlin’s administration again takes on a similar challenge.

More about the author

  • Jobst Fiedler , Professor Emeritus of Public and Financial Management