Why is governance important?

To most people, "governance in transport" is an activity for someone else to sort out - but isn't that what we have politicians, roads engineers, public works departments and highways authorities for? There are lots of officials and professional staff specially trained to build and maintain the roads that we all rely on every day, surely they know the right things to do?

Just think about this though, most of us have heard or seen something about our own country's roads that we weren't happy about. Perhaps the roads in our village or town have not been repaired this year, while government officials seem to have expensive houses and new cars. Or grand new roads are being built somewhere else in the country, while local tracks and paths are full of potholes or impassable in the rainy season. Good governance is about getting the best balance of road construction and maintenance for everybody's benefit.

Roads affect almost every aspect of the "well being" of a country:

  • roads to get to shops or to the market to buy food
  • roads to take goods to the market to sell
  • roads to get to school or college
  • roads to get to health centres and hospitals
  • roads for cars and buses for people to travel across the country
  • roads for industry and commerce to link factories to shops and ports
  • roads to transport building materials and consumer goods

...in industrialised countries, in rural communities, in remote settlements - almost everyone relies on the existence of a road network...

A road has an "asset value", the cost of constructing it or replacing it, much the same as a building has a value. The asset value of the whole road network of a country can be many millions, or billions of dollars, greater than the value of the assets of some multi-national companies. It is important that a national asset of such value is managed properly, in an ideal situation managed like a commercial company with a comparable asset valuation.

Road are "big business" - a lot of money is spent on the roads in every country. This money is mainly spent on road construction and maintenance, but it also pays for all of the offices, vehicles and staff of the organisations responsible for managing the road network. As much as 20% of a country's annual government budget may be spent on roads.

Unfortunately, large sums of money like this are also a regular target for intentional mismanagement and personal gain. A far too common failing in governance in the road sector is corruption. Poor management can also lead to an environment in which corruption thrives. When a senior official has control of how such large sums of money are spent, there is a great temptation to "siphon off" some of this money - maybe to build a grand new house, or buy a few new cars, or pay for the family's education, or to gather the cash needed to run for political ambitions in the next election. The details of how it is done vary, but the basic principle is that when large sums of money are being spent it can be difficult to detect if 5%, or 10%, or more of that money ends up in someone's personal bank account. The project still gets built, or the road still seems to get maintained, the road just costs a little more than it should have done or wasn't built to the standard it should have been and will need costly repairs much sooner than planned.

Corruption is not the only governance failing in the road sector though. Individual projects may be chosen to favour personal or family interests, or to buy political favours. The road administration, the government department responsible for managing the roads nationally, regionally or locally, may be greatly overstaffed, and may lack the specialist technical staff and professional managers needed to make the best decisions and ensure that work is carried out properly.

How do these failings occur, and why are they allowed to occur? Unfortunately, in most cases, not enough people know the details of what is happening, and there is no incentive for anyone to fix the problem. Corrupt officials hide the details of what they are doing so that nobody can prove anything, politicians get away with making bad decisions and are not held to account by the public, and inefficiency is accepted by all concerned as an inevitable result of normal government bureaucracy!

Problems are often compounded by poor financial accounting practices and a lack of proper auditing. A commercial company has to produce financial accounts by law and also justify its actions to shareholders. In government, financial details can be obscured, for instance with salaries under one budget heading covering several government departments, and with externally funded projects paying for extra staff, cars, offices and other expenditure which the normal government budget will not allow.

Governance is a very important factor in getting value for money from a country's road network.

Businesses depend on roads. Hence providing and maintaining the roads most important to commercial activities affects the economic performance of a country as a whole. The business community should take an interest in how money is spent, and lobby ministers and politicians for worthwhile improvements.

Roads also have a very important role to play in development, assisting in addressing social needs including healthcare and education, and playing a part in reducing poverty. These needs cannot easily be analysed in economic or financial terms.

People depend on roads. Where possible the public should exercise their democratic rights - providing good roads, and proving that this is being done well, should be as high on the political agenda alongside education, health and other key political issues.

Almost everyone is a "stakeholder" in the road network (see Stakeholders - business & civil society). The media also have an important role in bringing the right information to the attention of the public.