Public Works Disasters and What We Can Learn

Government-run public works have always been under (rightfully) an added layer of scrutiny. After all, these are supposedly for the public good and certainly use tax payers dollars to get done. In order to pay for projects that go over budget, cities can go into debt, cut services, or roll back other plans. However, arguably the most important aspect of a public work failure is the resulting loss of trust, furthering both a lack of confidence in government and a reluctance to take on new major public works projects.


Major policy failures in public housing has led to negative outcomes in crime, education, and most importantly opportunity.  As our knowledge increases about the failures of public housing, what are the lessons that we can take from it?

1. Location Matters

 This simple rule of real estate, unsurprisingly spills over to more than just purchasing. When setting public housing, officials often looked where land was the cheapest. Public housing often did not “match” with surrounding neighborhoods, further bringing property values down. Since most schools use property taxes for funding, lower property taxes means less funding for schools. Finally, there is a growing body of research about the importance of social capital when comes to employment and social mobility outcomes.

2.Community Input Matters

publicmeetingUltimately, the role of government is to serve the people. Without meaningful community input, major public works projects are almost certainly bound to fail. However, community input has two parts – first who currently lives near the project and will directly affected by the inconvenience of construction along with the changing neighborhood that will follow it. Second, how will the benefactors of  such change will feel about the new project. We must, in planning stages, push people beyond gratitude and understand their demands. What good is a home built for families if there is no room for children? What good is to restrict parking if there is no public transportation nearby or sidewalks?  In order to make meaningful projects, we have to start with a well designed project. A well designed project goes beyond  low budgeted number and a beautiful rendering, it includes meaningful input and more importantly realizes how people will use the space.

3.Budgets have 2 purposes

Budgets ultimately have two purposes. The first, obviously, is the fiscal plan for the project. The second is a promise made to the taxpayers of competency.   If a project goes massively over budget, the public perceives this as a failure. The failure comes not from the incompletion of the project, but instead the failure of the government to correctly manage a project. Budgets should be more transparently created and bid upon. Tax incentives and other credits should be openly disclosed in order to help voters understand why projects have aspects to them that seem extravagant or unnecessary.

Even if we manage to perfect community input, location, and manage our budgets flawlessly- inevitably new issues will arise from major projects. If a major project can be completed, used, and doesn’t erode confidence for future projects- I think of it as a major success. After all, most cities want nothing to do with the Olympics, Los Angeles – with a fantastically managed Olympics the last time – wants more.


  • This article takes heavily from undergraduate lectures by Margaret Weir at UC Berkeley.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s